Saturday, May 28, 2022

A musical bargain packed with concentrated jazz nutrients: Sophie Faught Quartet at the Palladium

 For a bargain price at the metropolitan area's arts palace in Carmel, Sophie Faught and her all-

Sophie Faught led a distinguished quartet.

star quartet delivered with panache some of her recent and older compositions for about an hour Friday night.

There were many empty seats at the Palladium, but the size of the audience was enough to give a more than adequate response, confirming the esteem in which the saxophonist-bandleader and her colleagues — pianist Steve Allee, bassist Nick Tucker, and drummer Kenny Phelps —are held in central Indiana and beyond.

The seven Faught compositions enabled the band to represent the stature of what she writes and how congenial it can be for elaboration by sensitive artists.

The concert opened with Allee offstage, as a piece for trio saluted the Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, a distinguished figure in world literature best known for the novel "Things Fall Apart." Bass and tom-toms established an elemental pattern for the tune. The absence of the defining harmonies a keyboard can provide helped establish the piece as a respectful evocation of the world Achebe observed in his writings, a world struggling to forge a positive, post-colonialist path.

Faught has an apparent belief in symbols of connection and the role of culture in helping to make those connections.  The last number on the program, "Ouroboros," carries in its title an ancient symbol of the cycle of life. The image generating the symbol is a snake eating its tail. The quartet poured forth its farewell energy into this fast blues. The tune's cyclical nature is emphasized by a repeated tag in the theme and recurrent pauses of a few silent beats before the flow resumes. The performance was notable for a typically controlled, yet cyclonic, Kenny Phelps solo.

The title tune from Faught's 2013 CD brought the pianist onstage, with flavorful solos from Allee, Tucker, and the saxophonist. She mentioned that "Day One" was a shout-out to those who supported her development from day one, chiefly her family and her saxophone teacher, Harry Miedema, the longtime director of jazz at the University of Indianapolis.

For humor and attitude, it would have been hard to top "Little Emperor Syndrome," which Faught explained to the audience was a group portrait of "power-hungry people who should stop." I heard it as a kind of nose-thumbing samba, with Faught's solo in one episode including a kind of fierce yodeling, toggling back and forth between two notes over an interval.  

A couple of other pieces before a spellbinding ballad, "Lost Moon, " displayed Faught's ability to regulate the intensity of her solos. A natural progression can be compactly represented. Nobody's solos seemed too long, as if waiting for the Great Inspiration to strike. 

The tunes had admirable individuality and were susceptible to each band member's seasoned skill in putting his stamp upon the performance. Allee was succinct and eloquent both in the introduction to "Lost Moon" and in his subsequent solo. Tucker's solos were lavish with notes, intelligently grouped, not just flung out into the acoustic glory of the hall.  It was a treat to hear all four musicians, accustomed to being heard in smaller spaces, making the most of the setting.




Sunday, May 22, 2022

Spring awakening: Return of collaboration between ICO and DK blossoms this weekend

Stuart Lewis and Paige Robinson in "Ravel Piano Concerto," with guest pianist  Drew Petersen in background.

When they are successful, showcases that bring two performing-arts groups together feel like a boon to the whole scene. So, without taking away from many other indications, "Music Moves" not only represents Dance Kaleidoscope and the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra well; it also confirms the area's artistic re-emergence from the worst phases of the pandemic.

We had a live-streamed appetizer for the feast David Hochoy has made of Maurice Ravel's Piano Concerto in G major just over a year ago, when the first movement was presented. The world premiere of the complete work happened Saturday at Butler University's Schrott Center, the ICO's 475-seat home. The site has a great floor and a wide spectrum of lighting capability, showing off the dancers as well as the ingenuity and aptness of Laura E. Glover's designs. 

At the back of the stage, the orchestra was not disadvantaged, as the hall's acoustics are splendid. An expanded company of assistants realized Barry Doss's variegated costume designs. Visually, Hochoy's choreography was linked to the music all the better. A stylistic magpie in this score, Ravel uses march music, jazz, modernist chic, and sentimental chanson with head-spinning clarity and pace. 

The slow movement is a point of stillness whose simple melody never grows stale, especially when here it is part of a third collaborative link: the presence of 2017 American Pianists Association competition winner Drew Petersen as soloist throughout. His vigor in the outer movements helped hold the fast music together. As well as it was conducted by the ICO's Mathew Kraemer, the spread-out position of the ensemble made coordination challenging.

As Ravel makes his appropriation of various musical styles seem part of his signature, so does Hochoy's choreography. But the second movement was especially breathtaking because Hochoy found in it a superb scenario for a pas de deux. While the music seems to rest on one place — a place no listener ever wants to leave — the dancing uses that attractive focus to present exquisite pacing of a relationship that grows in intensity. The intensity is held back, even toward the end. But we can feel the interaction growing in intimacy and warmth. It was superbly danced Saturday by Paige Robinson (in a glittering costume that gave her diva-like presence) and Stuart Lewis, who is also the company's associate artistic director. (For a contrast visually and choreographically, another DK partnership, that of Emily Dyson and Manuel Valdes, comes to the fore in the third-movement ensemble setting of the music.)

Now in her seventh season with DK, Robinson has grown into a position extending the legacy of the troupe's female dancers who are also superb actors, building on a line that runs from Liberty Harris and Mariel Greenlee. Hochoy is good about not setting up stars among his dancers. 

But some seem not merely responsive to functioning in the spotlight and embodying the choreographic vision, but projecting a character from within their mastery of the dance assignment as well. They have a gift for pathos, facial expressions that "tell" without mugging, something that moves you, almost as if the choreography were incidental. As seen Saturday, the Ravel second movement showed that Robinson is building upon a company tradition. 

Light-hearted flair: Emily Dyson in "Brahms/Handel"

The current troupe has the added richness of dancers who partner well. In the near term, the duo possibilities seem close to inexhaustible, if this show's finale, "Brahms/Haydn Variations," is indicative. What was even more impressive in that new work was a good distribution of comic gifts among the troupe. Insightfully, Hochoy has exploited the humor possibilities of Brahms' cunning variations on a theme that, it's turned out, is a chorale melody not composed by his great precursor Haydn. Brahms was among the most imaginative composers of variations ever, and his Opus 33a is firmly in the orchestral repertoire.

Stage comedy is a matter of turns, twists, and eventual resolution of human difficulties as the possibility of arriving at common ground is declared. That's what Brahms' sunny set of variations does as well, in abstract terms. Hochoy's inspiration is true here, and doesn't require a narrative, but simply a progression toward collective joy. There is a suggestion in Guy Clark's costumes that commedia dell'arte, a kind of comedy steeped in formulaic relationships, frames the action: the women in layered skirts that puff out wide at the hips evoke Colombine; the men's loose, long robes — trailing behind,  lying open in  front —hint at Pantalone. 

There's bantering, nattering, coquetry, and romantic horseplay as successive variations pivot the theme this way and that. All this is portrayed in detail and with (secret word!) kaleidoscopic sass. As post-commedia operatic comedy traditionally makes explicit, the genuine happiness of all characters in their true selves comes through at the end. The spats and quibbles have vanished; the finale seems "a momentary stay against confusion" (in Robert Frost's phrase), and that's enough. It's all there in  Hochoy's "Brahms/Haydn Variations," the sort of piece in which anyone can take heart.

Strike up the band: Cody Miley in "Candide" Overture
Comedy animates a fizzy number from 2010 that was also played in the right spirit, if not in apple-pie order, by the ICO in this program: Leonard Bernstein's Overture to "Candide." Cody Miley, who in "Brahms/Handel Variations" also showed his comic flair, enters the stage with Kraemer and soon the music is off to the races, with the dancer mimicking the conductor at first as the troupe assembles from the wings.

As they had to do in the outer movements of the Ravel, the dancers displayed rhythmic and gestural acuity, this time within the span of four minutes or so. The music encourages an almost spasmodic response: I once saw the composer on tour with his beloved New York Philharmonic at the Meadow Brook Music Festival near Detroit. This was not conducting, and it only faintly resembled the spontaneous choreography Bernstein was known for in his heyday. The aging maestro sort of twitched and squirmed on the podium as the orchestra played with rote brilliance. It was idiomatic in the extreme, and perhaps Bernstein had a right to it. I bring it up here only to emphasize that this Overture to "Candide" submitted well to actual dancing. 

The program opened with a more flowing and even more challenging new work by Hochoy. It was his setting of "Orawa" by Wojicheck Kilar, a piece and a composer introduced to Indianapolis audiences by Krzysztof Urbanski early in his tenure as music director of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. The rapid stage crossings as well as the complicated poses and gestures occasionally relieved the side-to-side rush. But they never cut against the music's propulsiveness. Ending with a group shout, it was an effective curtain-raiser and will fill that function on Friday as DK opens the "Spring to Dance Festival" in St. Louis — a mark of distinction for a company that soon will celebrate its golden anniversary.

The ICO strings scintillated in supporting the troupe's exertions. Those got well-placed relief in the course of the program when the orchestra alone deftly performed one short, easy-breathing piece each by Arthur Honegger and G.F. Handel. Thus the dancers not only had the uplift of live accompaniment when they were active, but were able to catch a second breath or two and change costumes as the audience continued to be entertained by "Music Moves."

[Photos by Lora Olive]



Saturday, May 21, 2022

Both sides of the pond: ISO's Dvorak's 'New World' and new music from here

Jaime Martin had good points to make.

 You don't often find a neat thematic tie-in between a concert program containing a symphonic warhorse and quite recent contemporary music. But that's what the Indianapolis  Symphony Orchestra is offering this weekend as its "Greetings" series approaches its end along with the 2021-22 Classical Series season.

Spanish guest conductor Jaime Martin bridged any gap successfully Friday night at Hilbert Circle Theatre, drawing from the ISO a brilliant performance of Antonin Dvorak's Symphony No. 9 in E minor ("From the New World") that can sustain comparison with any in my experience. (The program will be repeated at 5:30 this afternoon.)

This is true despite a few awry moments. The first of several chords introducing the "Largo" second movement was ill-coordinated. This series is a perfect introduction to the English-horn solo on one of the repertoire's most famous themes. Like many passages in this familiar work, the chord sequence is heard more than once. But its initial statement must be pristine. Otherwise, the second movement Friday night was full of wonders, including hushed string sonority and the tender framing of Roger Roe's predictably haunting performance.

The famous sigh of farewell at the very end of the work, which the affable Martin was moved to highlight in remarks from the podium, came out more emphatic than he rightly suggested it's supposed to. He even quoted the ending of Longfellow's "Song of Hiawatha," which inspired the composer, to underline the meaning of the fadeout chord after all the finale's brouhaha. It sounded all right, I suppose, just without the special aura Martin had attributed to it. Last quibble: there were more clams here and there from the horn section than we're used to, some of which they managed to turn into grace notes.

You could well suspect Martin of overcueing and even gently mickey-mousing the music. From delicate trills to fierce accents, he had a signal for everything. But the pulse was never in doubt, and he was so fascinating to watch and his movement seemed so natural and ingrained that the connection with the results he got justified everything. I may never have heard a better performance of the Scherzo (third movement). There was a lightness and airiness about everything, the inevitability of dance in those cultures where it is endemic, both that of American Indians and of Dvorak's fellow Bohemians. 

I rarely bring up recordings I like in comparison to concerts under review, but the sharp knife edge that George Szell honed on the Cleveland Orchestra was not needed here, and yet the rhythms were well-defined. From the lower strings that launch the work onward, warmth prevailed. Near the end of the Largo, the pauses that interrupt a brief recall of the theme, with the strings at minimum, rendered me surprisingly teary-eyed.

Ivy Ringel, principal bassoon with ISO

In contrast, the concert's first half made a virtue out of unfamiliarity. Principal bassoonist Ivy Ringel navigated the rigors of "Ghost of the White Deer," a concerto by Jerod Impichchaachaaha' Tate, with unforced mastery and the ability to compete with a sometimes rambunctious orchestra on equal terms. The work was premiered by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra just before the pandemic interrupted everything. It deserves many performances of this caliber. The composer draws upon his Chickasaw heritage to elaborate on a moving legend of love and violence; the solo instrument seems both a spectral evocation and a flesh-and-blood presence. It covered the full spectrum Friday night.

I was first impressed with Ringel last June because of the character she gave to the lullaby that heralds the triumphant final scene of Stravinsky's "Firebird." Her tone is characteristically full yet rich in nuance, and, both in this concerto and in that "Firebird," totally free of that slightly pinched quality you sometimes hear from double-reed instruments. It blooms and soars.

The concert opened with "Rounds," a multifaceted concerto for piano and string orchestra, by Jessie Montgomery. With a performance history that's only a couple of months old,  this piece is about as contemporary as it could be without being a world premiere.  Awadagin Pratt, who's on the faculty of the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music and as a young man was heard here in recital and with the ISO, played with the expected flash of technique and imagination that the work calls for. 

Awadagin Pratt brought a wealth of affinities here.

There is improvisation involved; I'm not sure exactly where, but it seemed to be centered in the solo cadenza. That's where improvisation used to play a role in the classical period. Even when cadenzas are fully written out, they ought to sound improvised. Long ago, a classical critic who covered a jazz concert in Carnegie Hall — it may have been Benny Goodman's fabled 1938 appearance —  indicated his disdain for the genre by saying, "It's just about all cadenzas, and I hate cadenzas!" Pratt quoted from the Largo tune that would be heard in the second half in a couple of places, in different registers. It all fit.

Just before the cadenza, there was a passage that reminded me of a David Diamond piece, also titled "Rounds" and also for string orchestra (without concerto-style piano). I don't know if Montgomery was paying an oblique tribute or not. Maybe memory of a piece I last heard on record years ago was playing tricks on me. If so, it was an agreeable trick. The piece stands on its own, in any case, and elicited an ovation that prompted a virtuoso encore: Fred Hersch's Nocturne for the Left Hand Alone. Surely that right hand is coming off the bench to help lead the charge, one is tempted to think. Nope! It's a southpaw spectacle, and Pratt's performance was typical of the thrills this concert offered.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Delayed return recital visit by IVCI gold medalist Takezawa was worth the wait

 The second International Violin Competition of Indianapolis will always bulk large in my memory because it provided the immediate reason for my hiring by the Indianapolis Star.

In performance, intensity and good taste are blended.

So the chance to see and hear the winner of that 1986 contest in recital was not to be missed. Kyoko Takezawa has built on her victory that September to mount a significant international career. The recital with Indianapolis pianist Chih-Yi Chen had to be delayed, then rescheduled, as one of the many inconveniences caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The current Laureate Series headed toward its conclusion Tuesday evening at the Indiana History Center. The violinist's regard for Indianapolis as a "second hometown" was signaled by the presence in the audience of her host family from nearly 36 years ago and her dedication of Chopin's Nocturne in D-flat, op. 27, no. 2 (in transcription) to the memory of Ania Beczkiewicz (1943-2018), the wife of IVCI founding director Thomas J. Beczkiewicz.

That performance was the briefest on the program, with a place of honor right after intermission, and of course was tenderly played, drawing on the violinist's memories of the dedicatee.  The rest of the second half was magnificently filled with Saint-Saens' Sonata No. 1 in D minor, op. 75. Over four expansive movements, the work summarizes the composer's top-drawer manner as the icon of French romanticism in tidy form. 

The piece works well with a light approach throughout, but also as  full-bore scrutiny of the expressiveness that continues to draw music-lovers to the era from which it emerged. That was how Takezawa and Chen performed it. Saint-Saens was ever a learned composer who wore his learning lightly. It was Hector Berlioz who quipped about his younger compatriot: "He knows everything, but he lacks inexperience."  The romantics made a virtue of inexperience in spiritually awakened youth; they prized a kind of freshness that bordered on naivete. Saint-Saens seems to have skipped that phase.

The finale, with its fast-paced demands on both players, in this performance was exhilarating throughout. They demonstrated that emotional breadth and even depth are not the exclusive preserve of the Austro-German tradition. That tradition was represented by the opening piece: Brahms' Violin Sonata No. 1 in G, op. 78. The work seems to suit Takezawa's temperament. Her warm tone and capacity for reflective pacing brought out the music's gracefulness, fully in sync with the pianist's own. 

The well-balanced duo stature of the performance was admirable. Especially winning was the decisive, spirited ending they gave to the opening movement. A brief piano interlude before the violin's final phrases in the second movement set up the conclusion perfectly. The finale sustained a momentum over the course of the coordinated, varying tempos.

The duo rapport was tested in Ernest Bloch's "Baal Shem Suite," which to a large extent focuses all its sensitivity and seriousness on the violin. Takezawa didn't need to soar into the upper reaches to be convincing in her mastery of the singing tone that's so vital to Bloch's language. The fast, somewhat dreamlike finale confirmed the brilliance of the concert's partnership.

After the Saint-Saens sonata, Chen and Takezawa responded to the tremendous ovation with two encores, both lyrical bonbons in a situation where maybe the choice of one would have been sufficient:  Richard Wagner's "Albumblatt" and the Adagio from Schubert's "Arpeggione" Sonata. The encore favorites received whole-hearted readings nonetheless, setting a seal upon this gold medalist's return to her second hometown.




Monday, May 16, 2022

Finishing APA's 'Grand Encounters,' Michelle Cann spreads acquaintance with solo-piano repertoire

Chances are that the name "Florence Price" has dropped firmly into the consciousness of music-lovers

Michelle Cann applies her artistry as a Florence Price advocate.

where not long ago the name meant nothing, and her music was seldom heard. Michelle Cann, having finished her education at the Cleveland Institute of Music with two piano-performance degrees just over a decade ago, in 2016 discovered the work of Price (1887-1953) and has made advocacy a major part of her subsequent career.

She spread the word further under the auspices of the American Pianists Association Sunday afternoon at Indiana Landmarks Center to conclude the organization's "Grand Encounter" series for 2021-22. Price was represented in the program's centerpiece by her Piano Sonata in E minor. 

In three movements, the conventional structure and the mood-painting suggested by the Scherzo: Allegro finale were steeped in African-American music. The difference between such a piece and Price's "Fantaisie negre" No. 1 in E minor and Margaret Bonds' "Troubled Water," which ended the program, is the variation treatment of a folk tune that amounts to attractive salon music. All three were idiomatically performed Sunday afternoon. Cann responded to the vociferous ovation with a surprising encore, jazz pianist Hazel Scott's take on Rachmaninoff's Prelude in C-sharp minor. The work, a blend of tribute and mockery, along with the way the APA guest performed it, raised the audience's captivation to an intense level.

As for the Price sonata, it cleverly develops its themes, which are original and suggestive of the authentic genre native to these shores that Antonin Dvorak famously recommended to American composers. The first and second melodies of the opening movement complement each other; the "black spiritual" style of the Andante, with its left-hand gravitas, made affecting work of a great tune's return to climax the movement in Cann's hands. In the finale, as Cann told the audience, characteristics of the "juba" dance from West Africa were exploited in rondo form with fresh exuberance.

Price's struggles for respectability as a creative artist have borne fruit posthumously. True, she had moments of eminence that she had to work hard for, particularly in Chicago, where she settled after leaving her hometown of Little Rock and a sojourn in Atlanta. But she had many disappointments, both personal and professional. Her fascinating life, sketched in Cann's remarks from the stage, gets lots of sympathetic detail in a video lecture accessible through the Classical Nerd channel.

Maybe a little less talk from the stage, as illuminating as it was about Cann's devotion to her program, would have allowed room for the fourth of Clara Schumann's "Quatre Pieces Fugitives," op. 15. The work by another woman whose gender, though not race, surely hemmed in her achievements, isn't known to me. But I'm guessing that the fourth miniature, a Scherzo, would have capped the set better than the third one, Andante espressivo.  Of the three that Cann performed, No. 2 in A minor was especially effective, sounding like Clara's husband Robert, who predeceased her by many years. It was so redolent of Robert Schumann that it suggested some of his pieces may bear more of her influence than we'll ever know, rather than the other way around.

Cann opened her recital with two works from the tradition familiar to all advanced students of classical piano. Price respected such composers as Chopin and Brahms to a worshipful degree during her career as composer and performer. As Cann indicated in her oral program notes, the ballade, a musical representation of  a narrative poetic form well-known in the 19th century, suggested  different kinds of narrative to Chopin and to Brahms. Both approaches inspired Price as she drew upon African-American stories, using classical procedures of a romantic cast.

Cann's performance of Chopin's Ballade No. 3 in A major was a kind of deep-tissue massage that amounted to an overstrong imposition of personality upon the work. To me, hers was nearly an extra-musical response to the score, so ruminative in the main section that the rhythmic profile shriveled under pushes and tugs of the tempo. A significant key change introduces a more activist response to a piece that coheres a lot more rationally than the recitalist's interpretation suggested. Cann's love of mystery and nuance was more to the point in the way she played Brahms's Ballade no. 2 in G major from op. 10. Both interpretations at least were fitting representations of the recitalist's artistic mission, which creditably links neglected black female composers with the European mainstream and expands the breadth of the piano repertoire.


Saturday, May 14, 2022

Late-romantic symphonic splendor rides high in ISO's 'Greetings from Austria'

David Danzmayr is to the manner born.

Music-lovers can hardly feel they've been greeted from an exotic location when a symphony program focuses on Austria. So much of the core repertoire was produced and often premiered in and around Vienna that the options are generous when it comes to bringing forward the Austrian capital, which was once an imperial power in both cultural and political terms.

What's more, an Austrian guest conductor is on the Hilbert Circle Theatre podium this weekend to lead the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra in a program of major works by Erich Korngold and Gustav Mahler. The first of two performances (the other is at 5:30 this afternoon) of "Greetings from Austria" showed David Danzmayr drawing upon an immense reservoir of energy and attention to detail. 

All that came to the fore in Mahler's Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor. Before intermission, the conductor's resources were fully committed to Stefan Jackiw's pristine interpretation of Korngold's Violin Concerto in D major.

The American concert violinist displayed a refreshingly unsentimental manner in the concerto by an Austrian wunderkind who achieved his greatest fame in this country writing movie scores. Korngold's melodies in this work reflect (often directly) the easy-to-absorb parade of tunefulness and filigree that served him so well in Hollywood. 

Jackiw carried forward the substantial material in the opening movement in a rhythmically propulsive manner, with the orchestra in full cry behind him. There was lots of spine in his tone — a great advantage in a work so fixated on the high register that it can take on an invertebrate or sugary limpness if too decorously played.

Stefan Jackiw skimmed the whipped cream off Korngold.
In the second-movement Romanze, orchestral shimmer, so useful a timbre in golden-age movie scoring, gets its character from vibraphone, celesta, and harp. Friday's performance had the requisite magic in place. The variety in phrasing and dynamics in the solo part was spellbinding. 

In the finale, the audience was treated to Jackiw's continued drive, precision, and melodic high spirits in music of dancing exuberance. Though the sustained enthusiasm of the audience's response would normally have brought forth an encore, the program's unusual length may have prompted an understanding between soloist and conductor that there would be none. If so, it was a smart decision: as it turned out, there was some leakage in audience size in the course of the Mahler, presumably due to the concert's length.

I was reminded during intermission that the Mahler Fifth had been scheduled toward the end of the 2019-20 ISO season. Like so many cultural seasons, the ISO's was cut short by the pandemic's initial onslaught in March 2020. It was good to have this challenging piece — necessitating an enlarged ensemble, superb control from the podium, and marathon-level orchestral endurance— back in place.

The late music director emeritus Raymond Leppard said from the onset of his tenure  (1987-2001) that the late-romantic repertoire — Richard Strauss in addition to Bruckner and Mahler — was ill-suited to the ISO's home hall. At bottom, Leppard had little enthusiasm for Mahler symphonies, and programmed only the Fourth, the tidiest and most soft-spoken of the nine complete ones. Many conductors, especially in the second half of the 20th century, developed audience interest in Mahler's elaborate, lengthy constructions and his apotheosis of the art song. He came to be seen as major.

So much excellence to absorb in Friday's performance — too much to enumerate. The march that characterizes the first movement had the right funereal cast. It sagged a bit, but just enough to solidify the tragic mood. The sagging had more to do with tempo than any looseness of ensemble. On the contrary, the ISO was clearly up to deliver the maximum impact. The opportunity was immediately available in the second movement, a proper cataclysm. Toward the end, intonation had begun to slip here and there. The tuning Danzmayr called for may have been planned all along; in any case, it was certainly advisable at this point.

Intonation was now in place, but the shaping of phrases in the Scherzo had rounded corners where it ought to have been more sharply angled. Once the movement settled down, the contrasting episodes gave the performance appropriate smoothness. The famous Adagietto, sometimes heard in isolation for commemorative purposes, brought out the best in the strings, with delicate, exquisitely timed punctuation of the harp. The passage before the full climax was marvelous, and the ending hit a peak of quiet elegance.

Aaron Copland once came up with an incisive image comparing Mahler's symphonies with Beethoven's. He said Beethoven is a great man walking down the street, while Mahler is a great actor playing a great man walking down the street. There's some justice in that comparison, though it probably nettles extreme Mahlerphiles.

The finale of this symphony lends considerable support to the comparison. On Friday, the ISO played it very well. The music is clearly overloaded with the emotional weight the composer intended for it. Its triumphant assertions at length could be described by today's vogue word "performative." That aspect simply has to be embraced to bring off such a piece. 

Having principals as expressive, even forcefully so, and on-target as first horn Robert Danforth, who got the first solo bow, helps immensely toward that end. Don't stint on the show-off aspect of Mahler, and you're doing fine as long as you have the textures and tempos coordinated and the steady vision to look over the horizon. That was the path Danzmayr and the ISO followed almost unerringly Friday night.

Saturday, May 7, 2022

All-modern, all-Russian program gets off to a powerful start in Friday's ISO concert

Michael Francis is visiting again this weekend.
International politics took a bite out of a season-long theme in the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's classical season when "Greetings from Russia" was deleted from the "postcard" designation that has honored several nations so far, with three more to come.

Presumably, Russia's continuing assault on Ukraine was responsible, but it's hard to see why some authentic 20th-century products of the Russian muse should fall victim, in a marketing sense, to Vladimir Putin's 21st-century tyranny and aggression.

Guest conductor Michael Francis gave excellent program notes from the stage Friday night before the concert's replacement headliner, Sergei Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances. Along with Sergei Prokofiev and Sofia Gubaidulina, the program's other composers, Rachmaninoff's life was deeply affected by the Soviet era, largely in a way comparable to Putin's apparent desire to emulate Josef Stalin in internal repression and external power games.

Francis' informative overview raised the question again: Why couldn't this program have remained "Greetings from Russia" in its appeal to the public? Unlike others in this series, all the composers represented were from the country being saluted, not just waving a hand in tribute to its culture.

A native of Britain, since 2019 an American citizen living with his family in Florida, Francis has made a clear-cut impression as a man with the technique and the artistic vision capable of leading the ISO on a more regular basis.  He did so with an all-American program in 2017. But his standing in the ISO's search for a new music director is unknown to me. 

It could be that the most exciting, keenly focused concert experience to be had in Indianapolis this weekend is how the ISO performs Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances under Francis' baton. I can't say for sure, and I don't cover all musical genres and formats, but there was  unparalleled energy and vitality in this final orchestral statement from the much-loved composer's pen. Hilbert Circle Theatre is the place to be this afternoon.

Long struggling for high-level admiration as a composer as modernism seems to have been stamped as a historical necessity, Rachmaninoff based his exile in the West on his superb achievement as a concert pianist. Symphonic Dances was his major hail and farewell to the lost world that nurtured him.

It may be a stretch to headline this review suggesting that this weekend's program is "all-modern" as well as "all-Russian," but Symphonic Dances shows the composer's absorption of his musically adventurous times beyond what he produced before the Revolution prompted departure from his homeland. There's an edginess that seems impelled by more than the romantic afflatus that generated the piano concertos and the symphonies, especially the beloved No. 2 of each form. In the work reviewed here, there is also a wealth of orchestral color, which  tends to be underestimated in early Rachmaninoff. One of the early reviews during the vogue for Lowell Liebermann in the 1990s made an invidious comparison to the effect that Liebermann's style resembled Rachmaninoff's, but with good orchestration.

Kevin Lln brought out the spiky magic of Prokofiev.
Friday's performance of Symphonic Dances had a plethora of fine rhythmic details as well as highlighting of its colors. It was appropriate that the first solo bow Francis invited upon his first curtain call was given to Mark Ortwein, by title the ISO's associate principal bassoonist. He played the first dance's saxophone solos with a vividness and heft that is missing in the only recording I own. It's by a Soviet orchestra, and it's as if either the saxophonist, the conductor or the even the engineer was a little embarrassed by this johnny-come-lately's prominence in a piece of serious Russian music and folded it modestly into the sonic texture. Ortwein's performance, on the other hand, was bold and idiomatic.

Sitting in the concertmaster's chair, unusually so when the concertmaster is featured as concerto soloist, was Kevin Lin. Maybe he really likes the piece, and who can blame him? His presence helped give shape and direction to the orchestra in partnership with Francis. The collegiality was evident in the hug the two men exchanged at the end of Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major. 

The fiendishly difficult work found the soloist fit for all demands. Perpetual-motion passages have their contrast in heart-melting lyricism, and there are touches of humor in Prokofiev's endearing, if smart-aleck manner. The solo part shares these qualities with a busy, alert orchestra, and that's what the ISO was throughout. Lin displayed the ingratiating manner of a work that sometimes seems too aggressive about wanting to be liked.

These concerts open with a somewhat conservative but still characteristic work by the true modernist 

Sofia Gubaidulina is in the forefront of living Russian composers.

Sofia Gubaidulina, who celebrated her 90th birthday last October. "Fairytale Poem"  comes in at just under a quarter-hour as it captures a Czech folktale called "The Little Chalk." The story gives a personality and a destiny to the classic blackboard writing tool that was known to generations of schoolchildren around the world. The piece puts eloquent characterization into a small group of clarinets, as the sometimes mysterious ensemble of strings carries the evolution of the anthropomorphic chalk forward. The work is both surprising and comforting in how it fleshes out the fanciful tale, and, gathered in chamber-orchestra form, the ISO played it brightly under Francis' guidance.

ISO CEO James Johnson was pressed into service in advance, telling the audience the plot of "Fairytale Poem." He also dedicated the concert to the memory of Herman Whitfield III, an Indianapolis pianist-composer who died here in police custody April 25.

Thursday, May 5, 2022

Inside Straight plays its cards well in two-night stand at the Jazz Kitchen

From left, Martin, McBride, Allen, Wilson and Wolf in full cry

 A marvelous midweek spike in Jazz Kitchen audiences could only be explained by an outstanding engagement, and that was four sets over two evenings by Christian McBride and Inside Straight.

I caught the final set Wednesday, and it lived up to the online raves that had come my way, especially about the gig's Tuesday night launch. A seasoned bandleader, McBride has added to his already considerable acclaim as master of the double bass with his smooth, charming broadcast work, including in 2016 co-hosting the American Pianists Association's competition finals. He is a multiple Grammy Awards winner.

From the stage, McBride credited Warren Wolf, a spectacular vibraphonist he first encountered years ago at the Aspen Festival, with the very existence of Inside Straight, the touring quintet that also includes Carl Allen, drums; Steve Wilson, saxophones, and Peter Martin, piano. 

That ensemble delivered outstanding versions of original music in the fourth set. Invariably, the group managed to sound smooth and coordinated without coming across as overarranged. The energy was unrelenting, and the sometimes intricate structure of the pieces was easily mastered.

Wolf's solo in the opening piece revealed a gift quite applicable to the band's book. He could double up the rate of notes delivered within phrases that had just sounded spacious. In doing so, there was no indication of becoming frantic or of a hard shifting of gears. There were similar surprises in texture and rate of delivery in Martin's solo; all of a sudden you would hear a striding left-hand pattern emerge or something ornamental in the right hand become substantial.

Allen put all sorts of variety into his solo on "Gang Gang," a venture marked by a rapid bass-drum undercurrent, on top of which snippets of tom-tom pounding were placed. He   avoided the cliché of climaxing with excessive cymbal displays; instead he dialed back the drum focus into near-silence, bringing a hush to the whole room with the way he ended. 

Bandstand fun: McBride and Allen enjoying themselves.

In all his sweetness and strength, Wilson was featured on soprano saxophone in McBride's "Star Beam," which included the bandleader's first solo of the set. A major feature of Inside Straight's current recording "Live at the Village Vanguard,"  Wilson's "Ms. Angelou" had a torrential plucked solo by McBride, with a proliferation of rapid notes that would have put note-spinners like Eddie Gomez to shame. 

With the front line of Wilson and Wolf sitting out, the set's one standard, Duke Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady," displayed the dead-center intonation McBride brings to his arco work. Sometimes, on recordings at least, excellent jazz bassists seem to me not invariably in tune when they pick up the bow. This trio version of the classic featured an all-things-to-all-people solo by the pianist, getting a lot of response from the "amen corner" McBride had celebrated in earlier remarks. 

The full ensemble ended the set with Freddie Hubbard's "Theme for Kareem," a piece as explosive as the basketball star for whom it's named. With a Martin solo in between, the tune featured exciting exchanges between alto sax and vibes, then bass and drums. A tumultuous ovation at the end got the return gratitude of the band's collective front-and-center bow. 

[Photos by  Rob Ambrose]