Saturday, July 30, 2022

FTC's 'Tiger Style!' asks: Racial stereotypes, where are you from, where are you going?

In Mike Lew's "Tiger Style!,"  the pressures upon a model minority may lead it to become a mad (crazy as well as angry) model minority. From that madness and that anger can emerge the sort of frantic attempts to achieve fulfillment that pervade the play.

The trenchant farce, brimming with social commentary and with a note of restful affirmation at the end, opened a three-weekend run Friday night at Fonseca Theatre Company. To go full Western or full Eastern are opposing missions the show's brace of heroes adopts. Neither attempt to escape their respective identities as they've been cultivated since birth is destined to be successful.

Jordan Flores Schwartz, the FTC's producing director, directs an expressive five-person cast, three of

Albert and Jennifer at sixes and sevens, with their parents in perpetual background.

whom play several roles each.  The set's back wall features a prominent pen-and-ink drawing of the title's tiger, which also resonates with the meaning of the groundbreaking Chinese hit film "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." And the significance of that title suggests the passion under the surface of everyday life; figuratively, scary creatures always seem to generate emotional energy all of us may have trouble dealing with.

The verbal fireworks here are concentrated in a Chinese-American brother and sister, California overachievers in their disturbed young adulthood. The writing may be a bit overloaded, but it is richly imagined and wickedly funny. The siblings find the values and skills they've absorbed from childhood inadequate. Kim Egan and  Sean Qiu play Jennifer and Albert Chen, irked in Irvine and evidently at odds with meeting the challenges of  personal fulfillment anywhere in the contemporary West. Some of those challenges are rooted in racism, as well as in stereotypes somewhat subscribed to by status-conscious Chinese-Americans, such as their parents.

Lew has made durable survivors of those parents, played by Ian Cruz and Tracy Herring, who were compatibly partnered also in FTC's "Salt Pepper Ketchup" in early 2020. Their comic gifts are drawn upon more deeply in this show; they are also the characters who best convey the irony of their offspring's need to identify as unlucky, oppressed outsiders shocked to discover they may be onlookers on their own lives — despite all the awards, educational credentials and their almost offhand achievement of success in classical music, now discarded.

The parents seem innocent of any agenda that could be hemming the kids in, but they may be a touch disingenuous about it. Parents have a way of deflecting the energy in their children's confrontation scenes; this mom and dad share with many parents from all races and places the techniques they honed long ago during toddler tantrums. 

Cruz also plays Albert's sell-out boss Melvin, with whom he shares an ethnic background but is otherwise smoothly assimilated. I wish Melvin's wig didn't look so silly, because it made him look more patently ridiculous than his behavior was supposed to. I think the playwright is weighing some insights about status discrepancies within the Chinese-American community that are in danger of getting lost every time Melvin is onstage just because of his appearance.

Of Herring's other roles, the one that struck the most sparks, especially in opposition to Kim Egan's Jennifer, was as a therapist hard put to connect with this over-studious and controlling client. The modulation from spouting platitudes through trying to meet Jennifer on rational common ground to finally letting her exasperation show was delightful. It also amounted to one of the more involving episodes of Egan's performance on opening night.

The fifth actor, Jacob Pettyjohn, filled the inevitable function of  representing white supremacy, though both his characters were such enjoyable caricatures that it became clear Jennifer and Albert are partly responsible for their relatively inferior position with respect to each one. The characters of Albert's colleague, then superior, Russ the Bus and Jennifer's feckless, commitment-averse boyfriend Reggie exerted a kind of control compounded of white-skin privilege and the siblings' unintended complicity. 

The plot moves onto a fantasy level that gives body to Albert's dreams of significance, which are just so many castles in the air. There's a climactic visit to the People's Republic of China. That country predictably doesn't offer the sort of homeland experience Jennifer and Albert were expecting. The array of threats and challenges occupies a whole new battlefield far from the feeling of dislocation the young Chens already had in America. It's not worth a spoiler alert to mention that (surprise!) it turns out there's no place like home. The sentimental ending seems both acceptable and unavoidable. The turmoil leading up to it is both sufficiently entertaining and thought-provoking. "Tiger Style!" is never short on style as it drives the message home.

Monday, July 25, 2022

Monika Herzig presents tribute to Chick Corea at Jazz Kitchen

 Monika Herzig knows the Chick Corea book — in another sense, she wrote it ("Experiencing

Monika Herzig: Chick's music
Chick Corea") — so a tribute show at the Jazz Kitchen was bound to be a set of both breadth and depth.

And so it was Sunday night, the pianist heading a group with Peter Kienle, guitar; Scott Pazera, electric bass, and Cassius Goens III, drums. On several numbers, Oliver Nelson Jr. stepped in with his flute and piccolo.

The show had variety that commendably suggested the range of the prolific pianist-composer-bandleader over 50 years in the jazz spotlight. Herzig took a solo turn to play a piece from Corea's little-known "classical" suite. But she also put on the strap-held keytar with the ensemble in full cry to represent Corea's electric band and the Return to Forever legacy, a major feature in the fusion outgrowth of jazz.

The climax of the show, with two examples of the substantial "Spanish tinge" in Corea's output, was flamboyant and mesmerizing. There were evocations of Lenny White in Goens' drumming, Al Di Meola and Frank Gambale in Kienle's guitar, and Stanley Clarke in Pazera's bass. 

Each man has had many years to embed a personal signature in his playing, and that was evident, too. Herzig's mastery of  right-hand virtuosity was complete. The preponderance of Corea devotees in the audience rewarded the sincerity and commitment with cheers and ovations throughout the nearly two-hour show.

Nelson shares Herzig's bright outlook and habit of emotional involvement on and off the bandstand. His piccolo playing was exemplary as set in a context of Corea's loyalty to his bop roots in "Bud Powell," a piece lifting up his keyboard predecessor by name alone. This performance featured an excellent Kienle solo, one with the kind of expansiveness Corea's music always encourages. There was an energized episode of multidirectional exchanges with Goens, ensuring that "Bud Powell" would stay aloft and land safely. Nelson was whimsically apt on the C flute itself in "Humpty Dumpty."

In more complex music, the band had plenty to show off. The changing meters in "Litha" (from Corea's calling card as a leader, "Tones for Joan's Bones")  found everyone adept. Accompaniment patterns, when they could be savored in isolation, were always suitable: Goens was especially illuminating in the way he added brilliance to Pazera's solo. The bassist had previously stood out with his liquid, well-knit runs while soloing in "Armando's Rhumba," the set's opening number.

For a sentimental journey that helped project the leader's decades-long marital bond with Kienle, a piano-guitar spotlight in "Crystal Silence" recalled Corea's affinity for working in duos, especially with Gary Burton. The vibraphonist's Anderson, Indiana, origins were a matter of gentle controversy in dialogue with audience members. There was no arguing with the effect of this part of the tribute, however.

The characteristic Corea manner of band-leading was to set any cultivation in a kind of hanging-gardens format. His music almost always displayed careful husbandry, and the impression of witnessing something lush, luxuriant, and spilling over was always part of the appeal. On Sunday night,  the Herzig manner of tending those gardens came up with fresh greenery amid the heirloom vegetation that deserves a perpetual corner of the jazz estate.


Saturday, July 23, 2022

'Midsummer Night's Dream' production introduces new collaboration

 "A Midsummer Night's Dream" casts its appeal in several directions simultaneously, and rare is the production that is consistently balanced. Why is this masterpiece so attractive to theater companies? Maybe because they can catch the spirit of the piece while wrenching it here and there and seeing what settles. They can make it look whimsical and intricately planned at the same time — probably just what Shakespeare intended. 

Titania cradles the enchanted Bottom.

The love interest is split among three levels: aristocratic, supernatural, and raucously young adult. Then there's the nonsense, focused on the gimcrack show a clutch of blue-collar workers concocts to celebrate the aristocratic match, whose celebration rests upon conquest. The Bard supplied the chyron for this show, as he so often does: "The course of true love never did run smooth."

About a year ago I saw the last local version before the one I got to on its second night at the Fort Ben Cultural Center. The new venture is Bard Fest and Arts for Lawrence working together. The site presents challenges and opportunities. A small pavilion, seeming more at home for mid-size band concerts, invites the action to spill out onto the lawn and a sidewalk that heads straight back from center stage. Yes, it's outdoors without amplification of actors' voices, competing with traffic sounds from Post Road and East 56th Street and, close at hand, playground noise that focuses on a splendid swing set.

Matthew Socey, directing the show with evident purpose and abandon, has his actors go full tilt at making up in action and vocal volume for the difficulty of having the intricate text fully intelligible. They run to and fro with the desperate energy of Josh Hawley; they toss the word salad around as liberally as Kevin McCarthy. But that's enough analogizing with the present day. The setting is blurringly timeless but specifically associated with New Orleans; the Louisiana accents fortunately are concentrated in the upper-class figures of  the affianced aristocrats Theseus and Hippolyta, with some underlining from the aggrieved parent Egeus and Theseus' Master of the Revels, Philostrate.

It's hard to avoid comparisons, especially with my most recent acquaintance: IndyShakes at its new Riverside Park home a year ago. But I will do so. At the end of the day, every "MND" tub rests on its own Bottom, the tradesman who accidentally mediates between the supernatural and natural worlds, all the while the lovers from both fairyland and an imaginary Athens end up with the right partners. So I will rest my initial impressions of the July 22 performance right there. (The production runs through July 24.)

Kelsey VanVoorst is a talented clown, and brings to this role a necessary exuberance. But she (all the "rude mechanicals" who put together the theatrical exhibition are female) is just about the most unlovable Bottom I've ever seen. It's a defensible interpretation, perhaps, but is misleading insofar that we first see the eager weaver in this version as too vain, putting herself forward as ideal for most of the roles when Peter Quince is gathering his fellows to plan the show.

 This carries over to the hilarious scenes of Bottom's enchantment after he's turned into a donkey and wooed by Titania (Afton Shepard, who turns in a powerful interpretation of the fairy queen as well as of the fiancee Hippolyta). This Bottom is rather stuck on a kind of distaste for his "translation," when to me Bottom's great gift is his geniality and his readiness to be swept away by new experiences. He has what the poet John Keats was later to call "negative capability" -- a gift for entering fully other realities as they present opportunities to be other than his proud but limited tradesman self. This is why his fellow tradesmen loved him; they don't see him as an egotist.

In this show, Bottom becomes rather peremptory in his requests for service from the fairies, who under Titania's command are willing to flatter her infatuation by doing whatever the enchanted Bottom may require. Bottom should never act from a position of entitlement; he  is an enthusiast, given to malapropisms through an illiterate love of language (though why does this Bottom pronounce the "w" in "sword"?) and an exuberance that blurs sense impressions. He emerges from his enchantment more truly himself.

Some of the best attention to the play's less uproarious language can be heard in the performances of Jo Bennett as Theseus and the fairy King Oberon (worthily partnered with Afton Shepard in the corresponding female roles) and in some crucial context-setting speeches by Diane Tsao as Puck.

The young lovers are cast with perhaps, in one case, an excessive love of the gender fluidity one finds in modern Shakespeare productions, particularly of this show. To turn the Hermia-Lysander relationship into same-sex attraction is jarring, especially since "Lysandra" (Kristie Schuh) cannot be considered a counterpart to the other swain, Demetrius (the roaring Matt Walls), when that means that the initial conflict about suitable marriages in a rule-bound society is totally upset.  Of course, Egeus would not consider "Lysandra" a suitable partner for his (in this case, her) daughter Hermia.  The only time I believed in the naturalness of the Lydandra-Demetrius equality of opposition was when they engaged in some background rock-paper-scissors and yoga poses while their lady loves Hermia and Helena were verbally cat-fighting at length. That was a clever touch, even if it did draw attention away from what the girls were saying. 

All told, the production must be commended for the zest of its physically extravagant action, which "Midsummer Night's Dream" can hardly do without, and the resourcefulness with which the show puts across an intricate story in a setting that doesn't permit a great deal of magic to be more than hinted at technically. No wonder the last act wallowed in the nonsense of the "rude mechanicals" play, as the action was able to largely stay put on the pavilion stage and maximize the sight gags and the deliberately amateurish stumbles of the tradesmen.  But as Theseus says, with charity as well as a touch of gloom: "...your play needs no excuse. Never excuse; for when the players are all dead there need none to be blamed."

The effect of the outsize fun, however, was to further distance Shakespeare's celebration of true concord in marriage from what is bound to leave the most lasting impression on this audience: the madcap element of which he was also a master.

[Photo by Rob Slaven]

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Lincoln love: Chicago inspirations for a hometown piano-violin-cello trio

Aznavoorian (from left), Cunliffe, and Ruhstrat

So much an ornament and future inspiration in Haydn's chamber music, the piano trio has been an enduring combination up to the present day. Commissioning new music as well as mining the inherited repertoire, well-honed professional trios  continue to refresh the inheritance.

Based in Chicago and recorded by the Cedille Records organization based there, the Lincoln Trio has recently saluted the personal heritage of its members with the Grammy-nominated "Trios from our Homelands," in addition to several other Cedille recordings shared with other artists.

A new recording meshes the group's professional activity with its hometown as closely as possible: "Trios From Contemporary Chicago" includes three premiere recordings of works written for Desiree Ruhstrat, violin; David Cunliffe, cello, and Marta Aznavoorian, piano. The Chicago connection is particularly inspired by three sites depicted in the opening piece. Shawn E. Okpebholo's "city beautiful" (the lower-case habit with titles seems well-established among today's composers) opens with "aqua," which turns the wavy exterior of the 82-story Aqua Tower into a musical portrait. 

The loyalty to the visual impact is thorough, as the booklet's cover art confirms, and is carried through in the most devoted musical manner. The piece privileges flow and a sustained feeling for curvature in phrasing and dynamics.

Robie House: the inspiration for Okpebholo's "prairie"

More abstract symbolism and spacious writing comes in the second movement, '"prairie," named for the distinctive Frank Lloyd Wright style embodied in his Robie House in Hyde Park. The widely separated intervals, outlining the kinds of harmonies familiar in Aaron Copland's music,  capture the jutting angles and geometric rigor of the architecture. The bustling atmosphere of Union Station is celebrated in the finale, "burnham," named for the landmark terminal's architect.

Tourism takes a back seat in the  rest of the program. The much-recorded Stacy Garrop is represented by "Sanctuary," an expansive personal piece evoking her father. It depends not so much on direct memories, the composer says, as on her process of collecting reminiscences of Norman Garrop from family and friends. Nonetheless, the symbolic search of a child for response from a trusted adult fashions the framework of the composition, which consists of two movements tellingly labeled "Without" and "Within." The expressionist aesthetic that governs the piece is not the fashion now, and listeners used to new music of a terser cast, even when the emotions involved are outsized, may be put off. By the third hearing, I was more tolerant of what had initially seemed self-indulgent or simply too extravagant.

I have greater learned sympathy with the more compact intensity of Shulamit Ran's "Soliloquy."  Though it relates to an opera by the composer, there is considerable distance from autobiography in the work's development and its judicious swerve away from the staged context. Its mysterious start unfolds deliberately but without any sign of stalling. The recorded performance is typical of the Lincoln Trio's unerring balance and natural feeling for momentum.

Augusta Read Thomas  and Mischa Zupko have  the shortest works on the recording. In both cases, however, the impact is far from  trivial; they hold their own in this company. Zupko's "Fanfare 80" has a series of upward-flashing phrases in the celebratory manner its title promises. The piano-trio version is one of several, and "Fanfare 80" in this recording projects the likelihood of this music's being at home in any one of its incarnations. 

The two fleet movements of  Thomas' "...a  circle round the sun..." (stylish: ellipsis bookends plus lower case!) feature a smooth transition between the "Elegant and spacious" first movement and the summing-up "Dance-like, playful, and lyrical" finale. The movement lives up to its heading in the way its forward push is slightly blocked, as if by a fun distraction, then gets spurred ahead toward unforced joy.

The disc finds the Lincoln Trio fully responsive to what is clearly a wide spectrum of intentions, procedures and results in contemporary writing for the piano trio by five creative Chicagoans.

Friday, July 15, 2022

Rapt attention to a raptor: John Yao's Triceratops scores with band's second release

A significant path to move beyond bebop, the lingua franca of modern jazz, has been how to make large ensemble statements with small groups. It's a shrewd test of arranger resourcefulness: pretend to be big and make the textures throb and expand, while allowing solo voices to poke through.  It continues in the 21st century without necessarily being derivative: it avoids the fusion trap of excessive homogenization, and it has long eschewed the formula of head-solos-head that bebop pioneered in its high-wire act, then wore to a frazzle.

John Yao extends a tradition.

The main exemplar was Charles Mingus and his Jazz Workshop bands, typically a half-dozen strong. The charismatic bassist showed others how ten or fewer musicians could straddle the divide between collective and individual energy. Less stellar examples made their points in the late 20th century: The almost-big bands of Manny Albam, the Canadian Rob McConnell's Tentet, and the Frenchman Martial Solal's 12-piece Dodecaband went to the edge of bigness.

The blend of group and individual excellence that Duke Ellington developed was a sustaining inspiration for Mingus. Duke's big band could address Swing Era demands for dance music while providing shrewd, expansive frameworks without the need to appeal to dancers — a smorgasbord for listeners.  Solal specifically refashioned Ellington to create a new mosaic in "Dodecaband Plays Ellington." 

John Yao's Triceratops, in "Off-Kilter," its second release (See Tao Recordings), makes its case for extending this subgenre to today with only five players. Forsaking piano and other keyboards, the group sets its harmonic as well as melodic foundation on three horns: Yao's trombone and the saxophones of Billy Drewes and Jon Irabagon. The wind contingent is supported by bassist Robert Sabin and drummer Mark Ferber.

Some contrapuntal imagination is required by this kind of set-up. In "Below the High Rise," the harmonic spectrum is filled, emptied, and refilled by the horns in a linear texture. Whether improvised or arranged, a small band with big thoughts needs different voices working together or inevitably the group will always seem enlisted in support of one soloist or another. In "Labyrinth," fragments are set out as if they were clues to the maze, not vague wanderings; their significance is boosted by the ensemble's coherence at length.

Sometimes the voices can appear to be at odds with each other, as in the aptly titled "Crosstalk." But any opposition is more apparent than real. Hints of the big-band style may pop up from time to time, as in the riff-based accompaniment behind Yao's fine trombone solo in "The Morphing Line." In this energetic piece, the way the band coalesces gradually, with the trombone the last to join, constructs a statement with the clearest Mingus hallmarks to my ears (minus any leader's shouts that inevitably signal Mingus alone). 

When cleverly put together, the foreground-background mix constantly changes without disintegration. In the title tune, which ends the disc, as Yao and Drewes are placed together behind Irabagon's tenor solo, the rhythm section eventually drops out and we get three horns musing aloud on the material, sustaining the momentum with the help of sporadic drum accents. At length the band comes together, allowing a drum solo to emerge with ensemble backup. "Off-Kilter" allows every man to have his say, but much of it is necessarily shared with his mates. Yet he somehow gets to personalize everything, just as jazz did from its distant origins in New Orleans.

At the listening end, even music-minded plant-eaters are likely to  be charmed by the elegant ferocity of John Yao's Triceratops.

Thursday, July 14, 2022

Midsummer illuminations: ISO gives free classical concert at home

The welcome return of Kevin John Edusei to the Hilbert Circle Theatre podium Wednesday night was an extraordinary showcase for a guest conductor: a free concert presented by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra as a "thank you" to the public. Indoor classical concerts in the summer are rare in its schedule. The buzz grows that Edusei may be a favorite in the ISO's music-director search.

Kevin John Edusei conducted Stravinsky's third 'Firebird' suite Wednesday.

The hall was substantially filled for a concert ending with a predictable standing-ovation trigger: Igor Stravinsky's "Firebird Suite." But this was the Russian composer's 1945 revision, which is seldom heard. A stickler for clarity and sharply outlined tone colors, Edusei seems to have made a characteristic choice. The revision reflects Stravinsky's neo-classicism, a mid-career style that was to end in the decade after this "Firebird" version, when he adopted the 12-tone method under the influence of Robert Craft.

In his third "Firebird" suite, Stravinsky bracingly sheds the late Romantic palette that he imbibed from the example of his compatriot and teacher Rimsky-Korsakov and made his own in the 1910 original ballet score. The orchestration has a modernist sheen; hints of the original ballet staging are muted. Chamber-music episodes come to the fore, and there are several horn solos besides the famous one, all of them played to pristine effect by ISO principal Robert Danforth. 

And there was appropriately less heroism and more Apollonian straightforwardness in assistant bassoonist Mark Ortwein's playing of the "Lullaby" theme that in the ballet introduces the release of numerous creatures from an evil spell. In this version, the wedding processional music at the end launches with a series of separated, stabbing chords that contrast with the more grandiose passage in the 1911 suite. Though he never abandoned his patriotic admiration for Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky was far removed from romantic afflatus by 1945. 

The concert opened with the third local representation of Anna Clyne's music within the past year. We heard "This Midnight Hour" last fall in concerts conducted by Carlos Kalmar, and the UK native's "Sound and Fury" was performed by the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra a few months ago. The latter score sounds clearly its genesis in Shakespeare's "Macbeth," and literary associations are explicitly endorsed by the composers. In a video published by the ISO, she mentions a couple of poems that lie behind "This Midnight Hour." The work has nothing to do with soul singer Wilson Pickett's hit "The Midnight Hour": No love comes tumbling down in this evocation of a woman's running naked and alone through the night.

With "This Midnight Hour,"  the orchestra had the benefit of a second recent reading of a contemporary score under a different conductor. How often does that happen? No wonder the performance sounded so brilliantly assured. The explosive accents and the profusion of rushing figures, starting with the stomach-rumblings of the lower strings, couldn't have been more vivid than they were Wednesday night. 

The entrance of a cinematically inclined waltz theme about halfway through the piece indicated that a dream world was making welcome intrusions into the woman's mad rush. Clyne is quite open about the sociability of her muse with other art and with its need to engage audiences and musicians. No wonder that she's made a connection in an environment that often casts a jaundiced eye at new music.

Reveling in different configurations of the orchestra, Edusei led a revealing performance of a symphony by the 18th-century Italian master of instrumental music, Luigi Boccherini. A cellist-composer whose most famous piece for his instrument has suffered editorial mayhem over the centuries, Boccherini in his Symphony No. 6 in D minor, with the fourth of his op. 12 set, displays a distinctive personality in a musical era dominated perpetually by three eminent Austrians. 

Despite the abstract nature of symphonic music, this piece carries a distinct trace of Italian theatricality: There is a sobering, portentous, well-paced second movement that to me evoked the Two Armed Men from  Mozart's "Magic Flute." There is almost a structural employment of crescendos, especially in the finale. Texturally, the variety included stunning highlighting of the cello section. Two horns, two oboes, and one bassoon supplemented reduced strings. Conducting without a baton, the German conductor made the most of shaping the music with his amazingly large, long-fingered hands. 

ISO concertmaster Kevin Lin played enchanting Ravel.

Concertmaster Kevin Lin had a deserved turn in the spotlight in Maurice Ravel's "Tzigane." The soloist's emphasis on the occasionally introspective side of gypsy music as the French composer conceived it was remarkably appropriate. It allowed him to fashion a full-spectrum interpretation of this perpetually exotic work. The soloist and the accompaniment Edusei guided formed a convincing whole, and the large audience was both charmed and thrilled by the performance. 

[Edusei photo from July 13 concert by Nick Shotwell]

Sunday, July 10, 2022

At Early Music Festival, the solo song: what love has to do with it

Soprano Arwen Myers, perhaps dreaming of love

The lively program note to the recital Friday night by Arwen Myers and John Lenti sketched as wide a series of attitudes to romantic love in the early Baroque as would be constituted later by the American popular song. The topic of winning and losing in affairs of the heart never grows dull. 

"Listen Up, Lovers!" as a title for a concert introducing a voice-centered weekend in the Indianapolis Early Music Festival caught the durably imperative note in early 18th-century art songs: One addresses love as something one deserves, despite its disappointments. Musically, the repertoire rests on the towering achievements in Renaissance song literature, including the polyphonic supremacy of the madrigal in England and Italy. 

The elaborated sentiments take love with enduring seriousness, even when the mood is flirtatious. The duplicities of love expressed verbally encourage cultivation of visual cues: "Love, that fickle little god, teaches us that wordless language," reads the translation to the first French song presented at the Indiana History Center Friday, after an English set focused on Henry Lawes. 

But exchanging looks of devotion cannot get around love's contradictions, which may require words like these, in a song by Barbara Strozzi: "I have pleasure only in weeping, / I nourish myself only with tears. / Grief is my delight / and groans are my joys." Thus reads part of the English translation  of
"L'eraclito amoroso," one of the duo's triumphs in this concert: "Udite, amanti," the song insists at the outset, providing Myers and Lenti with the program's title.

The soprano and lutenist (who here used baroque guitar and theorbo, a double-necked bass lute) surveyed a variety of English, French and Italian song. Oxymorons in the texts have prompted composers to oppose meanings cheek by jowl, displaying their adroitness. The performers seemed always alert to bringing forward contradictions in both vocal and instrumental parts. What the voice declared, the plucked instrument confirmed. The musical empathy was just as firmly presented: in Claudio Monteverdi's "Si dolce e il tormento," the rhythmic steadiness and the accents that support the lines were evenly distributed between the musicians.

John Lenti and theorbo
Lenti's command  of guitar and theorbo was unfailingly apt, complementing the admirable spectrum of Myers' voice. Perhaps her most remarkable moment of vocal color came at the end of "L'eraclito amoroso." The song ends with these fiercely plaintive lines: "Every sadness assaults me, / every sorrow is eternal, / every pain afflicts me so much / that it kills me and buries me." The repeated "m'uccida" (kills me) — sung to reflect the life-snuffing violence alluded to  — was effectively contrasted with "sotterrimi" (buries me). Myers narrowed her tone on the last word, removing all gloss from it, and the poem's expression of interment was absolute. 

The most extended maintenance of a complex mood came with Tarquinio Merula's "Hor ch'e'l tempo di dormire," less a song than an operatic scena. It takes the frame of a lullaby, Mary to the infant Jesus, and becomes a prophetic vision of his Passion and death. The foreshadowing was intensified by vigorous strumming of the guitar. Eventually, the lullaby mood returns, and the song's restful conclusion found the duo at its sensitive best. The song's apotheosis of maternal love added a transcendent perspective to a program otherwise giving prismatic display to secular love, whose nobility is always open to question. There's the ache of devotion, but also what Lorenz Hart called "the conversation with the flying plates."


Thursday, July 7, 2022

'French Soundscapes' brings forward laureate violin-harp partnership

 Returning to town a year after his first post-competition engagement here, Luke Hsu, 2018 bronze

Luke Hsu applied an engaging personality.

medalist in the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, has made the most of a delayed duo appearance with a fellow laureate, Mélanie Laurent, 2019 gold medalist in the USA International Harp Competition.

"French Soundscapes" was the title of a program originally scheduled for last March. Wednesday's concert at the Indiana History Center marked the end of this season's Laureate Series. The partnership worked superbly. Besides duo and solo performances by the two top-prize winners, the concert took in a collaboration with the Ronen Chamber Ensemble in Saint-Saens' "Introduction et Allegro" for harp, flute, clarinet, and string quartet — plus the Pavane from Ravel's "Mother Goose Suite" as a soothing encore.

In his 2019 recital, a more conventional program with assistance at the piano from Chih-Yi Chen, Hsu showed his affinity for defining a piece's emotional terrain clearly in his manner with Brahms' Sonata in D minor. He was especially sensitive to the Viennese lilt pervading this familiar masterpiece. 

A similarly well-judged focus on expressive variety showed up straight away as the concert opened with the three-movement Suite en duo by Jean Cras. My previous acquaintance with this French composer (1879-1932) was limited to an astonishingly attractive four-act opera, "Polypheme," a CD set of which arrived "over the transom" several years ago and which I never expect to see staged.  

The rhythmic acuity of Hsu and Laurent animated every movement of the Suite, climaxing in the 11-

Melanie Laurent of France displays idiomatic rightness.

beat meter of the Très animé finale. Hints of Cras' affinity for the voice emerged in the Prembule opening of the first movement, in the declamatory French manner. The exchange of imitative material between the instruments was well-judged throughout; the craftsmanship seemed exemplary, and it took this tight partnership to fully reveal it.

Each guest soloist had a solo outing. Laurent revealed her extraordinarily wide spectrum of color in Marcel Granjany's Rhapsodie pour la harp. Changes in the splendid showcase's expressive direction were well managed. The harmonic wealth as the piece neared its end was enchanting. 

Hsu's turn in the spotlight was a  piece amply familiar from the prominence of the six Ysaye solo sonatas in the Indianapolis competition. Eugene Ysaye's Sonata No. 6 in E suits Hsu's love for highlighting contrasts. The shading he had applied last year to Brahms seems even more suitable to the mannerist variation of tone and texture that Ysaye displays. Except for an off-pitch final stab of punctuation, this performance was spot on, with all the requisite punch and variegated seductiveness. 

Saint-Saens' Fantaisie brought the concert up to intermission. Its imaginative outreach was signaled by the way the performers outlined the work's gradual gathering of melodic elements. Some drama ensues as the prelude episode recedes. The well-coordinated performance had the operatic heft of its composer's characteristic "public" manner: Saint-Saens' facility never spends much time cultivating intimacy. 

A lighter, more folk-based way of applying a personal touch to music in the public sphere got career-long cultivation from Astor Piazzolla in the Argentine composer's tango revelations. Histoire du tango brings forward the demotic vigor of the dance form: the first movement had Laurent applying forceful hand smacks to her instrument. "Cafe 1930" featured some introspective harp that catches the tango's capacity for rumination. "Nightclub 1960" meets in the center of the dance's popularity, with a sad episode showing that the woes of personal relationships are never distant from the breezy nonchalance of nightlife. Again, this duo seemed to reach a full understanding of how to trace the meaning.

Homer Ulrich's  book "Chamber Music" handles Ravel's chamber music nicely, but dutifully brings up "Introduction et Allegro" only to dismiss it, for all its charms, as not really chamber music: "the work is essentially an orchestral piece, hence requires no further mention here." It's a mini-concerto for reduced forces: The solo instrument is supported by two wind instruments (flute and clarinet) plus a string quartet; the other instruments form an ensemble. The Ronen Chamber Ensemble gave stalwart partnership to Laurent in this tidy display of the harp's versatility and acumen for working in combination with other instruments. 

It does that so well in French orchestral music, where the harp is  often an essential part of a score's character. It was a pleasure to hear it brought to the fore under the hands of so able an artist, working smoothly with a prize-winning violinist.