Monday, June 27, 2022

Touring version Lovano-Douglas Sound Prints quintet finishes two-day run at Jazz Kitchen

There's no reason to think that, based on their respective discographies alone, Joe Lovano and Dave Douglas would not perform well together. Career-long they have both set themselves in different jazz contexts and found ways to shape every collaboration I've heard, and both their compositions and their improvisational outreach are not narrowly focused. 

4/5 of Sound Prints: Penman, Douglas, Royston, Lovano.
I was curious about Sound Prints, the quintet in which the saxophonist and the trumpeter form the front line, partly because provocative commentary by the late Stanley Crouch once linked Lovano and Douglas by way of contrast. He found the saxophonist receptive to and comfortable in the black tradition; the trumpeter, kind of an outsider. Any one of several eminent black trumpeters "would turn him into a puddle on the bandstand," Crouch outrageously proclaimed.

Such invective suggested that these two white musicians might not feel comfortable together. Yet Sound Prints has been going for nine years, so I was skeptical of Crouch's praise of one leader, dismissal of the other — as I was of so much of his criticism, as compulsively readable as it often was. How could these seasoned front men possibly be incompatible, except to a critic with an axe to grind?

Of course, it turns out Sound Prints, which explicitly draws inspiration from Wayne Shorter, displays the thorough compatibility of Lovano and Douglas, judging from the third of four sets the band played this weekend at the Jazz Kitchen. On the tour, the rhythm section consists of Leo Genovese, piano; Matt Penman, bass, and Rudy Royston, drums. (Penman made a strong impression when the SFJazz Collective played the Kitchen in 2017.)

It took me a while to settle into the kind of assault Sound Prints is capable of. Penman's first solo, ruminatively toggling between crucially separated notes, pointed toward a positive direction. Lovano, in one of his cogent, less intense moods, elaborated on the bassist's suggestion. Genovese's abstract, single-line solo could have done with less aggressive drumming. 

Later, Royston accompanied the pianist with more restraint, and actually helped Genovese's florid, untethered style make sense to me. I continued not to connect solidly with Genovese, in whose favor it must be said that he favors unpredictability: His solo on "Full Moon" (the set-ender and the only announced tune) called up Dave Brubeck, of all people, in its chordal parade. 

The quintet worked well together. For all their occasional movements to the outside, the solos were tidy and tended to be rounded off without needless flourishes. Tempos flowed and shifted logically; a few themes built upon unison, bop-based lines took in much more as they progressed. The contrapuntal patterning sometimes set up between Lovano and Douglas was exciting.

A few words must be said here in defense of Douglas, given what some readers might feel is my needless reference above to a deceased critic. Of course he is no candidate for being liquefied on the bandstand, whatever Crouch may have meant by that image. He can touch on the blues roots of the music when he wants to, but seems to feel no yearning to be slavishly devoted to them. 

In Sunday's first set, I liked how he varied the color spectrum of his tone, and, as his recordings indicate, he showed great freedom in leaping between registers. Douglas resists the tendency of trumpeters to make a big deal of going up high; he just all of a sudden will ascend for a phrase or two, then plunge deftly back into mid-range. The soloing is edgy without preening, and at other times credibly lyrical without swooning.

Like Lovano, he has a voice all his own on his instrument. His range of collaborations has not spread him too thin, as far as I can tell; the personality is strong, but not set in stone. Both Sound Prints leaders bring to this band their adaptability and wide expressive range. The rhythm section jelled around them dependably in the music they played here Sunday. Sound Prints left firm footprints at the Jazz Kitchen.

[Photo by Rob Ambrose]




Saturday, June 25, 2022

56th Indianapolis Early Music Festival launches with Chatham Baroque's return

Chatham Baroque's "Three Violins" exquisitely balanced.
In the opening slot once again, Chatham Baroque made its first return to the Indianapolis Early Music Festival since 2013 (when this blog was just a month old, and teething already). Friday night the Pittsburgh-centered ensemble came back to town, again with guests, who enabled the band to present the program "The Three Violins" at the Indiana History Center.

It's not hard to begin by praising the ensemble's performance of the best-known piece in the concert: Johann Pachelbel's Canon in D, here with its Gigue conclusion intact. An ingeniously simple, productive short phrase forms the canon, which is subject to indefinite repetitions potentially. That certainly makes it a fixture in wedding processions, whose timing may vary and thus require music that can be honorably cut off when all are assembled.

The rapid tempo was welcome, and all the ornamentation of the canon fell into place handsomely. It made a satisfying way to conclude the first half, as Henry Purcell's "Three Parts Upon a Ground" did to end the concert. Chatham Baroque's performance of the latter work, notably recorded by Indiana University early-music professor Stanley Ritchie, amounted to a tribute to that venerable maestro, who trained many violinists specializing in early music.

It was another illustration, in a more intricate style, of what can be done to build upon a short bass line ("ground"). This one is by the most significant English composer before the 19th century. Purcell (1659-1695) was also a notable composer for voice. His gift for melody was more idiosyncratic than the High Baroque was later to develop. It was evident earlier in the performance with "Chacony," designating another form based on a brief, repeated melody. There were plenty of vocal hints about the layout of this fetching piece; its lilting dotted-rhythm line seemed eminently singable, evoking the composer of songs and operatic works such as "Dido and Aeneas."

The program opened with the concert's guest violinists offstage, echoing the lines enunciated by Andrew Fouts in Biagio Marini's captivating Sonata in Echo. When Evan Few and Edwin Huizinga appeared from the wings to join Fouts, "The Three Violins" was ready to be off and running in full soli force. 

The ensemble's instruments not covered by the title (two plucked and one bowed)  were given answering phrases in some pieces (particularly violone player Patricia Halveson) and otherwise provided the basso continuo. The three players capably supported the violinists; the ensemble was seamless. The colorful Bellerofonte Castaldi, inventor of the theorbo, was represented by theorbo players Scott Pauley and Joshua Stauffer, as the violinists rested, by two Capricci a due stumenti

There was plenty more for the full ensemble to take care of: A Sonata by Giovanni Battista Fontana had some inviting changes of texture, as the solo violin voice was doubled or tripled, with a zesty flourish for all three fiddlers at the end. This touch was crowned by the Purcell piece shortly thereafter. Some bracing dissonance flavored the final cadence, a brief but telling indication that baroque music is loaded with surprises and vivid feelings that we in the 21st century don't expect to have full access to.



Saturday, June 11, 2022

'Greetings from Spain' privileges the orchestral harp in more ways than one

 Whatever the pure spectacle on offer with this weekend's program by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, all the stars above Hilbert Circle Theatre Friday night seemed aligned to celebrate principal harpist Diane Evans.

Diane Evans will join the Oberlin faculty.

She's retiring after 40 seasons in that position, as was pointed out in the statement preceding the announcement that she is this year's winner of the Patch Award. That's the annual honor given to an ISO member whose musicianship and musical good citizenship is worth distinction. (The award honors Renato Pacini, who had a 60-year ISO career, ending in 1998, including posts as associate conductor and assistant principal first violin.)

Her charming spotlight in the video series of individualized member portraits made several years ago was shown again before the second half. The aura that the award presentation had called up before the music started took on new luster. In that interview, supplemented by her playing, she noted that early in her career how she performed was all about her, but "now it's about the audience." A veteran's values!

Further evidence it was her evening: Threaded throughout the program were five works including the harp, the instrument that joined the orchestra in the early 19th century and was heavily favored by French composers. "It is remarkable how rarely French composers deprived themselves of the instrument," says Norman Del Mar in The Anchor Companion to the Orchestra, "mostly indeed writing for two harps in works for larger orchestras."

Yet the centerpiece is the Spaniard Manuel de Falla's "Nights in the Gardens of Spain," giving a firm home base to a

Jun Märkl, ISO artistic advisor, conducts season's last two classical programs.

program titled "Greetings from Spain." For that, the Canadian pianist Stewart Goodyear is the weekend's soloist. He and conductor Jun Märkl worked well together. The music is less purely picturesque than the section titles — In the Gardens of the Generalife, A Distant Dance, and In the Gardens of the Sierra de Cordoba — might suggest. 

The piece is about atmosphere, folk-music roots and characteristic rhythms. There are many pungent moments, and the colors vary from the pastels emphasized in some performances to rich oil hues. These aspects got a strong, blended display from orchestra and soloist, whose crystalline octaves high in the treble shone.

A two-harp section is used, predictably, in music by French composers who were enchanted by Spain and eager to draw upon Iberian dance forms. The vehicles are well-known and sometimes were features of the older kind of symphonic pops concerts. But they have stature worth their inclusion in the mainstream. 

The central European tradition has accustomed us to the Browningesque dictum that "a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?" French and Spanish composers often say, in effect, Well, heaven can wait. Music that's of the earth, earthy, can probe depths all its own. Love calls us to the things of this world, after all. Being observant and receptive to the mundane may offer transcendent experiences, too.

Friday's concert opened with a dashing run through Chabrier's "Espana," hobbled a bit by some imprecision in the violins' countermelody to the second theme. This piece has a more well-knit texture than its popularity and easy appeal might suggest, especially since the main theme was later adapted for Perry Como's hit song, "Hot Diggity."

Maurice Ravel's more patrician character sketch, "Alborada del Gracioso," quickly affirmed its higher stature. Its middle section included another example of bassoonist Ivy Ringel's gift for cunning portrait-painting. 

After intermission came a broader-based evocation of Spain from Ravel in "Rapsodie Espagnole." Each vivid section was exquisitely balanced, and the first three had beautifully shaped endings. In the finale, "Feria," in the middle of its splashy episodes, the slow-tempo plaintiveness was enchanting and unhurried under Märkl's baton. Percussion and brass gloried in the movement's main sections.

Another bout of excitement, a well-known crowd-pleaser, got the job done again as a program finale. Rimsky-Korsakov's "Capriccio Espagnol" was finely put together, from its vivid ensembles to its characterful solos, especially those of the ISO concertmaster, Kevin Lin.

The Friday concert, to be repeated in a few hours, marks a particular high point in the thematic programming the ISO has offered Classical Series patrons this season. For color and excitement, "Greetings from Spain" just about tops them all.

Wednesday, June 8, 2022

Indianapolis Symphony's top leader looks past uncertainty into a secure future

When a period of designed transition is drawn out, any organization may have to fight the appearance of inertia. For a performing-arts organization that relies on public perception that it's actively offering its product and continuously soliciting and receiving support, that's dangerous territory.

James M. Johnson took over as CEO of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra in 2018, when the tenure of music director Krzysztof Urbanski was heading toward an end. The next year, a search committee was set up to appoint a successor. Urbanski's decade at the artistic helm was due to culminate at the end of the 2020-21 season. COVID-19 delayed the orchestra's next stage, as it did in so many of the ways society brings people together.  "The pandemic threw a wrench into our efforts," Johnson told me in an interview early this week. "Any other time we would have been further along."

James M. Johnson brought administrative experience in New York and Omaha to the ISO. 

For a year, concerts at Hilbert Circle Theatre, the orchestra's home, were suspended. Last year represented a gradual return to activity, and by last fall, something approaching the old normal was back on the schedule. The season about to end included a farewell to and by Urbanski centered upon the work he would have led to end his time as the seventh music director of the now 92-year-old orchestra: Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Two sold-out performances were both a way of saluting the young Polish maestro and indicating that the ISO was ready to head into a fully active future.

In our interview this week, Johnson said that scheduling guest conductors for the in-between time became difficult as the ISO sought a secure path forward, with musicians, staff, and the public subject to reasonable protection from the virus. Despite protocols and the scheduling complications, the usual criteria had to be applied: "We are still on track there," Johnson said. "The music director must have excellent musical qualities and communicate the emotional content of the music to the listener. We want a music director who sets high expectations and takes the orchestra to another level artistically. Those were the critical issues even pre-pandemic."

Other factors acknowledge that the ISO needs to seem vital again to a community whose attention is readily divided, not only by the diverse media environment but by adjustments to the pandemic that have pushed private use of leisure time to the fore. Among candidates, "the clear winner is someone who participates fully in the community, who's a true representative of the orchestra and seeks collaborations," Johnson said, adding an emphasis on inclusivity. "How can we include more of our community in the work of the orchestra? It's not necessary that the music director lives here twelve months of the year, but we want them to be impactful."

Out of a number of guest conductors this season and next, Johnson is reluctant to identify any as candidates for the position. "We want to respect the conductors that we're seeing — there are circumstances where a conductor invited to the podium may be interested and may not be interested." With such a stretched-out time frame to reach a decision, Johnson pointed to the value of Jun Märkl, a German-Japanese conductor who has long been familiar to the ISO, as the official artistic advisor. 

"He has time to help as long as necessary," Johnson said, giving as an example this week's auditions for four permanent positions. He expects those will result in four new members by the end of a week in which Märkl is on hand to conduct two concerts. (The season will end with Märkl again on the podium to lead the ISO, the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir,  Indianapolis Children's Choir and soloists in two performances of Mendelssohn's "Elijah" June 17 and 18). Auditions are a matter usually supervised by a music director and committees qualified to judge candidates to fill the vacancies. The ISO also has many musicians under temporary contracts who may be contending against applicants from outside the orchestra as the vacancies get filled. "We've been well filled by the temporary appointments," in Johnson's view. "That the orchestra is playing now at a high level is due in no small part to the musicians under temporary appointments."

Although Johnson's musical background includes formative years as a rock and pop bassist in his native Washington state, he denies that as an administrator his tastes beyond the core repertoire have been heavily influenced by his youthful experience. Over more than two decades in  New York City, he helped guide the different artistic missions of the New York Pops Orchestra, the Orchestra of St. Luke's, and chiefly as general manager of the Martha Graham Dance Company. Seeking a better environment to raise a family, he and his wife moved to Omaha, Nebraska, where he was CEO and president of the Omaha Symphony Association until the ISO hired him for the corresponding position here.

"My appreciation for what an orchestra is capable of doing drives my interest in pops programming," he declared, and he admires both the years-long record of principal pops conductor Jack Everly and the more recent involvement of Steve Hackman in genre-crossing arrangements such as the ISO's recent mash-up concert of Radiohead and Brahms. "I'm just invested in the success of the orchestra," he said, and he mentioned with admiration also the well-established holiday variety show, Yuletide Celebration. "There's nothing like it in the country," he said,  "and I want to continue to support it and get all of our stakeholders invested in it."

He acknowledged with gratitude that the ISO is in the first year of a three-year contract with its musicians, and that "during that time we can identify the next music director. That gives us time to evaluate our overall strategy and re-examine our vision."

The vision is clouded by the questionable health of the worldwide population and the threat of setbacks locally even as it appears the virus and its variants are receding into endemic status.

'Uncertainty is certainly a part of it," the CEO admits, considering the stress the ISO put upon its musicians as it tightened its belt, "and uncertainty is not necessarily a healthy way to build morale. But now we're in a healthy financial position and audiences are returning, even if the pandemic is listening," Johnson added, sharing the news, with a trace of amusement, that "this morning I tested positive...."

Sunday, June 5, 2022

Fonseca Theatre Company's 'Fade': Finding your place in society tests the identity you may claim

One of the advantages of white-skin privilege for an American man came home to me as I attended

Lucia becomes fascinated with Abel's story.

"Fade" Saturday afternoon: I've never had to choose which aspect of being a white man I need to defend. 

I haven't had to apply my status or ambitions, either personal or professional, in order to find a context for them. I'm not proud of this, because I haven't had to do anything to avoid such a burden. For long, it was the default setting for many Americans. For traditionally marginalized groups, an acceptable personal identity has to be claimed, nurtured and defended while resisting imposed constraints and keeping internal and external demons at bay.

It's an ongoing task for the two characters in Tanya Saracho's play, whose production by the Fonseca Theatre Company was pandemic-delayed by two years. They have to sort out even what to call their people, and nothing less than how to properly designate Mexican-Americans, as well as everyone in this hemisphere of Hispanic heritage. The playwright uses "Latinx," production director Jordan Flores Schwartz, in her informative page of program notes, prefers "Latine." The pronunciation of the characters' names (Lucia and Abel) involves agenda-setting choices: how to identify their status, and not only their personal origins, but the origin of those origins: social class, family history, and so on.

 "Fade" addresses the specific questions that creative people among Latine must struggle to settle, especially when they seek to place themselves and their narratives within a popular culture still ruled by white men. The play's setting is a lower-level corporate office in Hollywood's signature industry of television, the junior partner to the city's movieland roots.  Saracho's personal history overlaps significantly with influences upon Lucia, a novelist seeking TV success, but psychologically conflicted about her prospects. She's out of touch personally with her people, and to some extent with people in general, as she's been used to working from home before moving to Los Angeles from Chicago.

Ambitious newcomer and janitor get acquainted.
The play loses little time in developing a close friendship between Lucia, a corporate neophyte at odds with her boss and one "mansplaining" underling rival, and Abel, the building's janitor. She assumes she should speak Spanish to him — a mistake that opens up an initial gulf. But soon the relationship becomes too conveniently close. Except for one impulsive kiss, it never gets romantic. Still, there's something like a lover's quarrel, involving betrayal.

Over 90 uninterrupted minutes, "Fade" casts Lucia in an increasingly unsympathetic light. She's rightly resentful of the tokenism that limits her horizons. She goes from on edge and unsettled, keenly aware of the low-quality scripts she's barely able to shape, to catching on to how breaking in professionally means, simply, breaking.

Abel lends a sympathetic ear to Lucia's plight. Despite the difference in status, he senses their common
struggle, especially since, like nearly everyone else, he's devoted to pop culture and the narratives it creates about people. Seeing people on TV who look like them is an abiding allure. Abel is cajoled into sharing more and more information about his life, including a background that has made his dead-end custodial job necessary. He reveals personal connections and loyalties that seem remote from Lucia's uprooted, lonely position in the rat race.  She comes to regard him as a kind of collaborator, from which exploitation naturally proceeds.

Lara Romero and Ian Cruz gave performances that seemed under scrupulous control by the director and the actors' own insights and energy. If there's a bit of a wind-up-toy feeling to how they present their characters, the playwright is somewhat to blame. She has a lot of social reality to reflect. There is satirical treatment as well as pathos to explore. The dramatic to-do list is extensive for such a short, focused play.

Abel makes an unwelcome discovery when Lucia's away.

References to the play's Trump-administration setting come across as extraneous, yet perhaps relevant to Lucia's tendency to overthink her situation. She settles for broad interpretations of her difficulties without looking within. Abel, on the other hand, is embedded in the specific ebb and flow of his life, its pains and its endangered delights. To interpret the world, he looks from his background out; she takes in the big picture too eagerly to assess her proper place in it. She ends up buying into everything she had rejected.

Both characters carry the seeds of what they eventually harvest in revelations and self-awareness. The process comes out in a way that shows one of them treading water, the other advancing. Society puts  authenticity in its place when it chafes against marketability and homogenized values. Tony Sirk's costume designs for Lucia are a brilliant marker of the woman's advancing fortune.

Bernie Killian's set has the clean-featured anonymity of a modern, low-level Hollywood office, always ready for the next occupant as the corporation moves its pawns around the board. The bland cheerfulness of Ben Dobler's lighting complements it; his musical soundtrack seems to draw sustenance from the world of the Latin Grammys.

The play's title suggests a camera shot in which a scene's action dims to yield to the next scene. The technique ensures that the audience's attention is temporarily held to one situation, but not too loyal to it. Transition is assured. Something else comes along, and something dear to someone's heart fades as the new thing enters. 

"Fade" thus offers a penetrating look at the vagaries of fade-in, fade-out identities. Those who attend this production through next Sunday, whether they share much of Lucia's or Abel's background or not, are sure to be challenged to examine what society compels or permits them to face about who they are. And there's no business like show business for rubbing our noses in identity questions. 

Photos: Ankh Productions/Chandra Lynch