Sunday, September 25, 2022

American Pianists Awards' Premiere Series opens with turbulent, surprising Esteban Castro

A week ago, the cameo self-portraits of five young pianists were topped by the contribution of Esteban

Esteban Castro, 20, channels both Prokofiev and James P. Johnson.

Castro. The free concert in the Madame Walker Theater Sept. 18 yielded the most promising performance in the work of the youngest contestant, as the American Pianists Association presented its five finalists for the Cole Porter Fellowship in Jazz.

A New Jerseyite, now a New Yorker studying at the Juilliard School, and with a firm grounding in classical music,  Castro treated his trio mates well inaugurating the Premiere Series of trio sets Saturday night. Yet he chose to devote a large proportion of his 70-minute second set at the Jazz Kitchen to expansive, unaccompanied playing. Often the trio would rejoin him by simply sliding into place, as if the three had been working together for a long time. That effect can be credited in large part to the skillful collegiality of bassist Nick Tucker and drummer Kenny Phelps.

As was evident Sept. 18, Castro again showed a relentless sensitivity to rhythm — both to the overall pulse he sets and to the intricacies he introduces in both a tune's theme and his improvisations. When he allows himself to float, it's often a prelude to another galvanic outpouring. This was clear in the original waltz he offered first, titled "Rose-Colored Paradise," which shifted after one of those unaccompanied episodes back into a trio, only to launch a samba, with Phelps imitating Latin percussion at first with crisp rim patterns. 

The pianist's treatment of the standard "Alone Together" was heavily energized by lots of thunder in the bass, as if the left hand were trying for a personal best in push-ups or planks. The right hand seemed exhilarated by the fitness demonstrations of the left. That emphasis set up  a masterly "stride" episode, part of Castro's declared love for James P. Johnson and later to be showcased by a solo performance of "Carolina Shout."

Castro gave lots of room for bass and drums to fill out a romp through Bud Powell's "Celia," which was followed up by a suite or medley that took us through a Joe Henderson classic and a lovely Cole Porter song before gaining breadth and a substantial flourish in one of Castro''s compositions. The Johnson classic was succeeded by the trio's zesty outing through "The Way You Look Tonight," which closed the set.

As for the way he sounded last night: Castro's attack at the keyboard, relieved by quieter episodes that held the large audience spellbound, often attained the ferocity and intense punctuation of such Latin-jazz masters as Chucho Valdes. I was sure the club's piano would need tuning before the next scheduled pianist. Some piano fans might bridle at the torrential display of pure "chops," but I found there were always plenty of ideas at work and outstanding facility in moving among textures and tempos. Castro has set a high mark of imagination and verve that his fellow finalists will be challenged to match.

Saturday, September 24, 2022

The big concerto statements: How the third night of IVCI finals struck me

 You would never run into the sort of concerts that are winding up the 2022 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis in "real concert life." Three hefty concertos for a solo instrument and orchestra do not constitute the kind of program that's normally scheduled. 

That's quite all right — it's a contest, with a certain expansiveness and a lot of concentrated work. Besides the three finalists I heard Friday night, of course, the work fell on the shoulders of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra and guest conductor Leonard Slatkin.

So even if the preliminary and semifinal rounds bore more resemblance to the kind of spotlight

Minami Yoshida of Japan played the Sibelius.

performance with a focus on one performer — we call them "recitals" — it's the four nights of finals that bring the stress and  inevitable comparisons to the fore. 

There were two nights of Classical Finals (the word "classical" in its formal designation of the late 18th century and encompassing five Mozart concertos and one by Haydn) before the requirement to work with a full symphony orchestra in one of 20 romantic or modern concertos.

The Hilbert Circle Theatre drew a substantial audience Thursday to witness the climax of the competition's ten days. After tonight's performances by the remaining three finalists, the scores for the main awards and the special distinctions will be gathered and a Gala Awards Ceremony and Reception will take place Sunday afternoon at the Scottish Rite Cathedral.


Joshua Brown displayed an affinity for Bartok.
Thursday's concert opened with  a work of extraordinary demands: Bela Bartok's Violin Concerto No. 2. The Hungarian modernist poured his trademark ingenuity and blend of barbs and sweetness into this work, which brought finalist Joshua Brown to the stage. 

Slatkin is an  experienced maestro with broad receptivity to all parts of the repertoire. His reputation
was loftily formed by lifting the reputation of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, then (among later accomplishments) practically giving the Detroit Symphony Orchestra a second life. Predictably, he drew from the ISO a brilliant accompaniment, sensitive to the complex colors and rhythms of the work.

Brown's performance had superior interpretive flair, which peaked in the first-movement cadenza. He reveled in the lyricism that can easily be overshadowed by aggressive episodes, thick with dissonance. The third movement, Allegro molto, brought out the violinist's vigorous embrace of the music's rhapsodic nature.

In the middle position was another American finalist, Julian Rhee, with Beethoven's Concerto in D. His playing was full of ardor, yet emotionally self-contained and patrician to a high degree. He showed a sure, well-developed  security in building phrases throughout this much-loved work. To my ears, however, he also tended to land on some high, sustained notes slightly under pitch. 

Concluding the long evening was Minami Yoshida, who had impressed me greatly in the competition's first two rounds. In Sibelius' Concerto in D minor, op.47, her initial entrance properly set the tone for the whole performance. It was well-considered but not overcautious. Her tone was especially admirable in the low-lying lyricism of the second movement. In the finale, her intensity nearly betrayed her at times, but it remained captivating and took its place mixed with a sweetness that her playing adhered to as needed. 

Over the course of the lengthy demands on the orchestra, the accompaniments continued on the same high plane with which they had begun in the Bartok. The whole evening was a concert-going experience in a format particularly conducive to the excitement that competition inevitably provides.



Friday, September 23, 2022

Mozart-minded: Impressions of IVCI's second-night Classical finals

 It's clear from his birth records and the way he wrote his name in any serious context that Wolfgang Amadé Mozart's middle name was not "Amadeus." Yet a sturdy tradition with that Latin version was given modern multigenre confirmation by Peter Shaffer's play and the movie starring a cackling Tom Hulce.

The "Amadeus" image holds as well in the divided nature attributed to the great composer by what Shaffer imagines to have been the view of his older contemporary Antonio Salieri, who wondered that the vulgar, immature prodigy he knew seemed also divinely gifted. The court composer, who eventually went mad, questioned God's justice in pouring fine wine into such an unworthy vessel.  Without over-stressing the point, music-lovers and violinists have seen both the otherworldly elegance and the rambunctious adolescence in the Austrian genius' five violin concertos, written in 1776 when he was 19.

In the 11th quadrennial International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, two performances of the Violin Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Thursday night bore contrasts of the sort that hinted at both aspects of Mozart.

Sirena Huang: Evoking the Countess, among other pluses.

I'm not suggesting she even hinted at anything vulgar,  but SooBeen Lee offered an interpretation that was restless and borderline impulsive in the first movement, subtly conveyed teen angst in the second, and romped and became cheeky in the finale, qualities capped by the cadenza. By way of contrast, Claire Wells' approach to the same score was beguiling in a lofty manner, and seemed focused on the élan that the maturing composer was to maintain in maturity until his premature death in 1791.

Both finalists, accompanied judiciously and in full sympathy by the East Coast Chamber Orchestra, then brought the corresponding personality traits to their encores. The Classical Finals have been cleverly designed to memorialize Jaakko Kuusisto, a 1994 IVCI Laureate, by playing the arrangements he made of Fritz Kreisler short pieces for soloist and string orchestra.

Wells chose "Tambourin chinois," playing in a manner that turned its outdated exoticism into the best kind of elite tribute. It was dashing and uplifting. Lee chose "Liebesleid'," one of Kreisler's most heart-rending melodies; the piece suited her dark, romantic tone, and the hints of lamentation that served her so well in the concerto's slow movement were confirmed in the Kreisler bonbon. The recurrent dotted rhythms were precise but never to sharp-angled to disturb the mood.

After intermission, there was a change of concerto, in contrast to the other three finalists' selection of No. 5 in A major, Mozart's  best-known violin concerto. I heard only Joshua Brown's via live stream, so won't comment on Wednesday's concert here.

Sirena Huang, who made a great semifinal impression on me as she brought that IVCI round of recitals to a close Monday evening, continued to evince her extensive competition experience and all-round mastery as she played Violin Concerto No. 3 in G with the ECCO.  She simply reveled in the zest of performance, choosing to double the orchestral statements in the tuttis and tossing off flamboyant cadenzas, with some anachronistic but tasteful left-hand pizzicato in the finale's.

The Adagio of this concerto is my favorite among the five. Unsurprisingly, it shares with many of Mozart's tunes an operatic stature with emotional intimacy. Allowing for some violinistic gestures, you could easily place it in the same realm as Countess Almaviva's  "Dove sono" in "The Marriage of Figaro." Like that aria, it has the same poised dignity in lamenting lost happiness and clinging to hope. Huang displayed the personality and secure style that the music needs. 

And to top a laureate-worthy exhibition of her fitness, Huang offered in "La Gitana" a sparkling Kreisler evocation of the "gypsy" manner so attractive to central European composers. The performance maintained the consistency she's shown so far in knowing the detail as well as the overall direction of any music she undertakes. 

There's a lot of this command evident among the finalists I've heard. When the romantic/modern concerto finals open tonight, with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra at Hilbert Circle Theatre, it will be fascinating to see how high this standard is adhered to.

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Picking out fine points of the IVCI semifinals, looking forward to finals

With the finalists announced below, as the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis pauses to allow for the initiation of four nights of concerto performances that constitute the final stage, I pause to take stock of what I heard in the semi-final round (September 16-19), where my attendance (via live stream) was more sporadic than I wished.

Let's concentrate on the best performances I heard of John Harbison's "Incontro," the commissioned work for the current competition. Performances that were sensitive to the true duo nature of the work impressed me; a few I heard (not by finalists) seemed to assume the music was all about the violin.

Joshua Brown had strong statements to make throughout both phases thus far.

After the piano's  separately designed solo arpeggios (pedaled so as to suggest mystery, as they were here), Joshua Brown projected the lyrical violin line with long, well-supported phrases. The middle section sounded deliberately tentative, thus matching the piano's brief "hiccuping" figures. The vigor both parts gain toward the climax was well-matched, and the coda (indicated "non vibrato," presumably, since every violinist played it that way) had the kind of emotional neutrality that calmed the outburst of moments before. 

The Italian title expresses the pitched opposition of teams in contention. But the music makes the most of the common goal of triumph and how that ends up mastering the encounter. Finalist-to-be Sirena Huang, who offered the last semifinal recital on Monday night, showed her keen sense of the whole piece by imparting a sighing quality to some of her first phrases, and she made the most of the violin's way of answering those piano "hiccups" before fashioning another apt "non vibrato" coda.

Sirena Huang's competition experience has been evident here.

"Incontro" struck me as one of those commissioned IVCI pieces that deserve to live, like George Rochberg's "Rhapsody and Prayer" (1990). Compositions that provide a knotty test for the performer may have advocates for the competition setting, like the one Leon Kirchner wrote for the 1986 IVCI. 

 But giving the contestant a problem to solve tends not to put the performer across on the level of the conventional repertoire. Witold Lutoslawski's "Subito" (1994) falls somewhere in between; that year's gold medalist, Juliette Kang, made quite a good case for it, including on the recording that was part of her prize.

After opening with Harbison's piece (a further indication of how well it communicates when it's understood well), now-finalist Minami Yoshida went on to lend her strong sense of style and robust tone to a couple of undoubted masterpieces, Beethoven's "Kreutzer" Sonata and Cesar Franck's Sonata in A. Her dynamic variety, nothing abrupt but always well-linked from phrase to phrase, was exceptional in the latter work. Her encore selection, Wieniawski's Polonaise in D major, was among the most brilliantly performed. And always, that rich tone never faltered.

Here's the statement the IVCI put out Monday night after the jury's assessment of the semifinals  has been tabulated:

After eight days of competition, including the Preliminaries (September 11-
14), and Semi-Finals (September 16-19), the 2022 Jury has selected the following individuals to advance to the AMPG Finals:
Joshua Brown (United States)
Julian Rhee (United States)
Minami Yoshida (Japan)
Claire Wells (United States)
SooBeen Lee (South Korea)
Sirena Huang (United States)



Monday, September 19, 2022

Avenue strut: American Pianists Association launches 2023 awards in jazz piano with Walker Theatre showcase

Finalists for 2023 awards take curtain call at Walker.


Jazz in Indianapolis sends shafts of recognition further into the world each time the American Pianists Association focuses its attention on jazz piano as played by five young people seeking special distinction here.

So it's appropriate to remember that the hub from which Indianapolis jazz has radiated light and heat for decades was the fabled nightlife along Indiana Avenue in the post-war era. Based at the center of black life here and a lone surviving monument of the neighborhood's prosperity and cultural identity is the Madame C.J. Walker Legacy Center, where the finalists for the 2023 American Pianist Awards were introduced to the community Sunday in a free concert.

It remains to find out how much the tantalizing snippets of the five young men's talents will be fruitfully expanded in performances in  the Premiere Series, which  opens Saturday at the Jazz Kitchen.

Esteban Castro, the youngest finalist at just 20, will appear with the support of two prominent local musicians: bassist Nick Tucker and drummer Kenny Phelps. The others will follow in appearances according to a season-long schedule through February. The competition culminates in the Club Finals (April 21 at the Cabaret) and the Gala Finals (April 22 at Hilbert Circle Theatre); one of the men will emerge as the Cole Porter Fellow in Jazz. The other four are Caelan Cardello, 32; Paul Cornish, 25; Thomas Linger, 29, and Isaiah J. Thompson, 25.

None happens to have Midwestern roots or training, so it was understandable that co-emcees Matthew Socey and Katasha S. Butler asked the bicoastal musicians in brief interviews how they liked this part of the country and Indianapolis in particular. Unsurprisingly, and perhaps genuinely, they all expressed their approval as well as gratitude. That went for the Yamaha grand piano, the APA, and the Madame Walker Theatre setting, but mostly for their selection as aspirants for a fellowship the APA says amounts to $200,000 in cash and career development.

I'm looking forward especially to the start of the Premiere Series, because I thought Castro's renditions Sunday afternoon of "Stablemates," a jazz standard by Benny Golson, and an original composition titled "Light Shines Through" were the most exciting of the five brief performances. I hasten to add that my responses Sunday, summed up here, don't set in stone what I might conclude about any of the candidates in the months to come.

Except for fitful passages among the others, I wasn't convinced that anyone more than Castro was thoroughly committed to swinging -- which he did robustly in "Stablemates." And I heard original ideas informing his determination to be all about the rhythm. His command of bebop phrasing was unfailingly acute and lively. His original tune had both a rhapsodic bloom and some sharper edges as well, all of it well-integrated. 

Taking the others in order: Thompson showed off a catchy "walking bass" underneath "Straighten Up and Fly Right." It thumped from time to time in a captivating way. His original tune, "I Am Not Alone," made a nice transition from its ballad opening into a gospel shout. The right hand frequently launched off an assertive bass pattern, and some dynamic variety gave extra life to the performance.

Linger treated the two parts of "Stardust" in a reverie style, with lots of filigree. His original, "A Lovely Encounter," had a bright, blues-inflected medium-tempo pace as the tune, steeped in Great American Songbook style, unfolded. I hope to find more explicit indications of a musical personality in his Premiere Series outing.

Cornish sounded tentative as he moved into a popular ballad beloved of jazz musicians, "Alone Together." (It's no fault of his that my ears' memory can't get beyond the first jazz version I ever heard, recorded long ago by Eric Dolphy.)  I liked that he launched into the Arthur Schwartz melody right off, and I found his comfort in softer dynamics and his light touch attractive in the manner of Ahmad Jamal. In Geri Allen's "Unconditional Love," his love of staccato articulation used accents pungently, and his episodic slowing of the tempo helped hold the large audience spellbound.

Cole Porter's "Easy to Love" was predictably easy to take in the way Cardello played it. The laid-back enunciation of the melody, flecked with figuration, suited the pianist's feeling for the piece. I'm glad he reversed the printed order of his two pieces, allowing a work by his mentor, the late Harold Mabern, to constitute the program finale. "John Neely, Beautiful People" was in his hands a romp characteristic of Mabern's Memphis-hewn style, a happy, upbeat piece calculated to send this special "Jazz on the Avenue" crowd buoyantly out into the warm September afternoon.

Ramsey Lewis, whom we also lost this year, isn't the most obvious role model for young jazz pianists, but he was a supreme groovemeister of well-schooled facility who knew how to "play pretty," too. I was thinking of how even young exponents of keyboard jazz, no matter the sources of their influence and inspiration, can benefit from training their personalities to incorporate a wide range of stylistic options into how they play and connect with audiences. Yet they have to resist sounding like everyone, and thus like no one in particular. These five have a good start toward exemplifying variety and appeal, then growing into how best to personalize their art.

[Photo by Rob Ambrose]

Saturday, September 17, 2022

IRT opens 50th-anniversary season with 'Sense and Sensibility': money and marriage together like a horse and carriage (love's a stowaway)

Sisters Marianne and Elinor Dashwood bond over music.
With his spiritual eyes trained on the Oversoul, Ralph Waldo Emerson couldn't find much of value in the work of Jane Austen:"I am at a loss to understand why people hold Miss Austen's novels at so high a rate," he confided to his diary in 1861, going on to explain that Austen novels  "seem to me vulgar in tone, sterile in invention, imprisoned in the wretched conventions of English society, without genius, wit, or knowledge of the world. Never was life so pinched & narrow."

A scattershot critique, to be sure, with some home truths from the Sage of Concord's perspective: nothing of the transcendentalist can be found in Austen's fiction. Its focused realism, with judicious use of coincidence,  is germane to the development of the English novel.  A work like "Sense and Sensibility" unsurprisingly adapts well to the stage, which remains hospitable to stories told close to the bone of everyday life. 

Despite the technological advances and receptivity to narrative wonders, theater will always love full-fledged characters, even those tipped toward caricature, in situations that present problems of identity, purpose, social adjustments, and codes of behavior ranging from mere etiquette to the most consequential morality. Verisimilitude is the watchword, an article of faith in the significance of the ordinary.

The real life of a rural, well-placed social class in early 19th-century England is all the expansiveness Austen needed. And the constraints upon female achievement and happiness cannot fail to strike sparks in today's readers and audiences. Thus "Sense and Sensibility," as adapted by Jessica Swale, becomes apt to inaugurate the 50th-anniversary season of Indiana Repertory Theatre. The opening-night performance Friday confirmed the rightness of that choice, especially with the deep experience of the production team (the peerless Peter Amster directs) and the return of a favorite IRT actress, Priscilla Lindsay.

In Austen's world, marrying well was all that could carry family prospects forward among the landed gentry. "All that interests in any character introduced is...Has he or she money to marry with, and conditions conforming?" Emerson fretted. The plot of "Sense and Sensibility" crucially makes clear that male fortunes, too, might depend on the whims and notions of rich relatives, or their untimely demises. 

Yet, by focusing on two young adult sisters of contrasting personalities, one representing "sense" and
the other "sensibility," Austen emphasizes that the constraints fell disproportionately on women of all temperaments. The overwhelming force of love, so well delineated in this production, finds victory only after negotiating a path through social and financial barriers, aided by luck.

"Sense," impersonated by Elinor Dashwood, takes the long view, guards its tongue, and tries to match ambition to the likelihood of fulfillment. "Sensibility" in Marianne Dashwood captures the  burgeoning romantic notion of fulfillment as a natural right and the expression of emotions keenly felt as essential to vitality. Helen Joo Lee and Lereyna Jade Bougouneau, respectively, captured the attention from the start and held it throughout their characters' travails and often fleeting pleasures. Expressions and gestures matched each shift in circumstance to their enduring traits.

Mrs. Dashwood cautions Margaret about bringing nature indoors.

They have been displaced, along with their mother and juvenile sister,  from their home in Sussex to the remote countryside of Devon by a shift in family fortunes. This early displacement in the story is a triumph of Austen's plotting and key to the way in which the author exposes character. The vagaries of accident clearly fall short of what Emerson took to be formative in human life, but most people feel the force of the unplanned in the lives they bring into the theater and the lives they try to set aside when they plop into their reading chairs.

There's much more wit in Austen than Emerson gave her credit for. In this adaptation, it's quite evident, especially in the first act.  The humor is broad at times, as in the satirical portrayal of Devan Mathias as the cruel usurper Fanny Dashwood. It's one of her several roles, matched by the versatility of Ron E. Rains as John Dashwood and a few others.

Mrs. Jennings watches over the sisters in London.
And the comic zest Priscilla Lindsay could always bring to the stage is given full play in her characterization of Mrs. Jennings, the imperturbable Devonshire matchmaker and gossip who attaches herself to the Dashwood sisters. How good to see her once again practically bursting a juicy role at the seams! Her voice alone is a source of theatrical nutrition.

Other actors, made over entirely at times by costume designer Tracy Dorman, accomplished  astonishing transformations. As the earnest, adorably tongue-tied suitor Edward Ferrars, Casey Hoekstra did double duty as his doltish brother Robert — twinned in appearance but opposite in behavior. He also played a creature of sardonic wit as Thomas Palmer, the put-upon husband of one of Devan Matthias' characters. The adeptness of a large portion of the cast in sliding into and out of characters had a presto change-o magic about it.

Holding steady in the same roles throughout were La Shawn Banks  as Colonel Brandon, whose slowly
emergent heroism would later be a quality so prominent in Charles Dickens characters, and Nate Santana as the flawed, dashing figure of John Willoughby. 

Claire Kashiman as the little Dashwood sister Margaret gave enthusiastic credibility to a budding-scientist character clearly designed by the adapter to suggest female capability in conventionally male pursuits. The 19th century abounded in these strong women whose way was often largely blocked as they matured.

Colonel Brandon eavesdrops on London gossips.
The English accents seemed well-schooled, and when lines escaped my ears and understanding from time to time, I have to attribute it in part to an inability to do the lip-reading everyone was used to in pre-mask days. In my case, it was due to a temporary blurring of  distance vision by recent cataract surgery. Putting that aside, the clarity of articulation seems to have been consistent opening night. 

The language moved as nimbly as the cast did physically, with the scenic design of Ann Sheffield following suit, and platforms shifting smoothly into place to mark scene changes. Dawn Chiang's active but not overbusy lighting design accompanied such changes intelligibly. 

The jolts in the characters' lives are fortunately not imposed upon the audience as the Dashwood story unfolds, caught up in "the wretched conventions of English society," keyed to the perpetual concerns of money and perfect unions, charmed by earthly beauty and blissfully ignorant of the Oversoul.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Preliminaries launch 2022 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis

Pressed by family issues to  settle for spot coverage of the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis' preliminary phase, I will highlight some of the salient points in the recitals I heard on the live stream, from Sunday morning into Tuesday morning.

 The 37 participants who remain on the schedule from the registration total of 39 will each have completed their presentations by early Wednesday evening. Thursday will be a day to reflect on the jury's choice of 16 semifinalists, and to prepare for the next phase, which comprises their more substantial recital performances starting Friday.

What a wealth of good Bach playing I heard, often the participant's choice to open with! Movements from the foundational 18th-century master's unaccompanied repertoire for violin — three sonatas and three partitas — provide a baroque field of dreams for adept fiddlers. 

There were competition years when the Bach elephant in the room — the Chaconne from Partita no. 2 in D minor — was almost dominant. Nine of the 15 preliminary recitals I heard early in the 1990 contest wrestled with that mighty monster. It holds a special place in violinists' hearts. Competition founder Josef Gingold said at the time: "If I were put on an island with coconuts and monkeys and just my violin and one piece of music, it would be the Bach Chaconne."

I admired Hiu Sing Fan's measured, exacting interpretation of the piece. The meditative episodes had the intended effect, and the majestic quality of the Chaconne's peroration was complete. Fortunately, participants of the quality the competition has attracted over four decades ensure capable performances of any Bach selection. The Chaconne deserves its out- of-context elevation as a repertoire choice, though even its greatest enthusiasts are probably grateful for most contestants' selection of multi-movement Bach.

There were quite a few performances of the Adagio and Fugue from Sonata No. 1 in G minor. The fugue needs to have at least the careful regulation of phrasing and harmony shown by Ria Honda; no "scraping" should be heard in the enunciation of harmonies that accompany the horizontal lines. Jung Min Choi's performance of the same fugue was faster than some I've heard, but it didn't sound rushed, and settled into a steady pace. Her good tone was displayed across the sustained phrasing of the Adagio.

Sometimes I'm amazed about how my period of callow youth extended well into middle age. In 1994, the fugue from Sonata no. 3 in C minor struck me as tedious, no matter how well it is played, as it was then. The mellowing effects of age, perhaps, have for several years put this ten-minute fugue for me at the summit of the three instances of this form in the sonatas. I now find it inherently interesting throughout, Bach of such ingenious craftsmanship that it ascends to a high plane of inspiration. That's how it struck me when KayCee Galano played it on Monday; it's an inherently interesting piece of music that needs to be played with a reciprocal show of interest, and Galano brought that to bear on it.

No Bach I heard — and remember, I missed quite a few exhibitions of it — impressed me

Minami Yoshida offered a fine prelim recital.

more than Minami Yoshida's  Grave and Fugue movements from Sonata No. 2 in A minor. The slow movement was expressive without dawdling, carefully paced. And she really seemed to feel the harmonies in the fugue; the notes from which the line bounced off were not just stabbed offhand. 

I want to use her Bach to suggest the great things in the rest of her recital. There might be some "recency bias" at work here, because Yoshida's was the last prelim I listened to. Boldly, she put in second position the virtuoso showpiece, Heinrich Ernst's Variations on "The Last Rose of Summer," the last of "six polyphonic etudes." The polyphony is fleeting, as no secondary voice is sustained in parallel to the familiar melody. It's at the farthest possible remove from the supreme polyphonic (contrapuntal) textures and structures in Bach.

But the decoration is substantial and extensive, and Yoshida always honored the filigree while keeping the melody foremost, most memorably when it's showcased by left-hand pizzicato blooms in a garden of arpeggios. The Ernst showpiece is an innovation this year in a section dominated by Paganini Caprices.

These fiendishly challenging works can sometimes benefit from a straightforward approach, responsive to every demand but internalizing a lot of the flash. Joshua Brown's interpretation of the most famous Caprice, No. 24, was direct in expression. He made another kind of choice as a companion to the Paganini; the other Ernst piece, the Grand Caprice on Schubert's "Der Erlkönig." Brown delivered a properly demonic interpretation throughout; yet I found Jung Min Choi's account more involving because more than the demonic came through —  something of the child's plaintive terror that is so gripping in the Schubert song.

Mozart sonatas were well played in every instance, but I must single out Cherry Yeung's performance of the Sonata in E-flat, K. 302, especially in the second movement, in which she made transitional and secondary material as interesting as the melody. This seems related to what I might call her feeling for the rhetorical meaning of the Adagio in Bach's G minor sonata: the music is trying to convince us of something, and Yeung was right there advocating for that message.

Other participants also made typically outstanding aspects of their playing count in music of contrasting character. For Nathan Meltzer, it was his staccato: accurate and laser-sharp in Paganini Caprices 2 and 4 and also outstanding in  the first movement of Mozart's Sonata in A major, K. 304. And in her Mozart (Sonata in G major, K. 301), Yue Qian was exceptionally sensitive in working with the piano: echoing phrases and exchanges with the keyboard had a matching character. She was also sensitive to fusing expressively with the piano  in Sibelius' "Romance."

The Sibelius is part of an extensive group of short encore pieces in the prelims. The category was added in 1994 to bring forward the violin's gift for being purely charming. Such bonbons were features of the classic violin recitals of our grandparents' time, as programs tended to follow a heavy to (at the very end) light trajectory. It was a wise choice to thus showcase via competition an aspect of performance that doesn't come readily to hand among young fiddling wizards. Similarly smart, though it moved new music a little away from making a strong impression among masterpieces, was to shift the commissioned piece (this year by John Harbison) away from the prelims into the semifinals. 

So I must end with one of the best-played, and least-chosen, of the encore pieces I heard: Elgar's "Romance," his opus 1, was Yoshida's choice. And it made a perfect complement to the Bach, Ernst and Mozart she played so well in rounding out the last of the 14 prelim recitals I heard. There will be some keen sifting of this excellence in the semifinals to come on the way to the concerto finals, then the gala announcement of winners just over a  week-and-a-half from now. The excitement I sampled so sporadically in the prelims can only build from here on out.


Sunday, September 4, 2022

Fresh off a month of touring, Charlie Ballantine Trio comes home to the Jazz Kitchen

Charlie Ballantine flanked by Jesse Wittman and Cassius Goens  III

Small wonder that Charlie Ballantine evokes his early memories of music at the Jazz Kitchen by recalling being allowed to listen to the likes of John Scofield and Dave Stryker as a burgeoning jazz guitarist. 

He was still in his early teens, he told a large audience Saturday night, and his attendance even in the doorway of a nightclub serving alcohol involved a little winking at the law.

In one of the few interruptions of the music the guitarist allowed himself in his trio's first set, Ballantine assessed these slightly sneaky visits as formative in his musical direction and career decisions. His voice broke slightly in reminiscence. The guitarist's music has had a rootsy feeling for many years, and his geographical roots in central Indiana also are vital. 

The first time I heard him as a bandleader brought me up close to what still seems fundamental in his playing, even though he has grown into casting his net wide across the musical landscape. Of his "Providence," the title tune of an early CD, I wrote that it "evokes a hymn sung with gentle fervor on a Sunday morning in a country church, then seems to evolve into a ballad of lost love scratched out and crooned on somebody's front porch later that day."

He's a performer with a lyrical bent who flavors his melodic inspirations with assertive, crunchy chords. The textures sometimes add layers, but without congestion. A persistent  airiness suggests that there are always outside influences wafting over the Ballantine terrain. You could hear them in the Thelonious Monk ballad "Ask Me Now," along with explorations of the tune's blues aspects. Saturday's performance included a tidy, well-designed solo by bassist Jesse Wittman.

The set's third piece opened up into a short repeated chord pattern that invited drummer Cassius Goens III to exhibit his galvanic force, dexterity, and vivid feeling for bold colors. 

Bringing forward a treasured bit of folklore, the trio sailed into "Wayfaring Stranger" after Ballantine's unaccompanied opening solo, a recitative over a subtle drone pattern. In the main body of the piece, there were ringing tendrils in his phrase ends that came across as sighs. Then the intensity built among the three eminently compatible musicians. Ballantine's use of foot pedals added further textural interest near the end. This was a wayfaring stranger with a commanding tread.

Stylishly adept,  the trio showed its comfort level with the mainstream developments from bebop on, too. Dizzy Gillespie's "Con Alma" emphasized the sweetness of the theme as well as its driving potential. 

After a few more demonstrations of its interpretive range and the audience's enthusiasm, the trio responded with an encore: another folk chestnut, "Shenandoah." I guess when you come back home, it's always good to display what about you was never really left behind.


[Photo by Rob Ambrose]

Friday, September 2, 2022

American Lives Theatre production about journalistic standoff: Writer's truth is a shiny object that loses luster under a barrage of facts

Collaborators pause while reading the final part of a contentious magazine piece.

Choices about writing authoritatively can resemble Russian nesting dolls. There's always more you can explore, and the most plainly stated sentence may suggest further questions as ambiguity pokes out in unexpected places. Where do those decorative, serially contained dolls of fact get down to infinitesimal size? Is the truth down there or closer to the surface, and is the surface more important?

In writing about a play based on a book you haven't read, and learning from the printed program that two fiercely incompatible characters in the three-character "The Lifespan of a Fact" wrote a book together on which the play is based, you might have to make the old computer-based WYSIWYG decision. The American Lives Theatre production before me Thursday night at the Phoenix Theatre must be considered the ground floor of a story on which this review has to rest. I am not going to ascend the skyscraper and leap off the ledge.

Intern (Joe Wagner) ponders how to impress harried boss (Eva Patton).
Jim Fingal is a bright, detail-oriented intern at a glossy New York magazine (think the
revived Vanity Fair) who's assigned to fact-check in short order a piece by a star writer who calls his output essays and shies away from the designation "journalist." Emily Penrose is his tense, multitasking editor, sensitive to the prickliness of that purple-prose essayist, John D'Agata, and disdainful of the fresh-faced fact-checker's Harvard pedigree.

Fingal is quickly shown to be so painstaking that the long weekend designed for the article to be publication-ready is not enough. He is a tenacious, boots-on-the-ground researcher who ends up crashing in D'Agata's Las Vegas apartment, out of which most of the action evolves. The editor flies out for hands-on involvement in finishing the major feature, only to find D'Agata's hands on Fingal's neck. Healing the rift becomes essential, and the way she does it makes for a heart-stirring final scene.

In Joe Wagner's portrayal, Jim's initial deference to his editor is a tissue-thin strategy on his way to making his mark. His aim is to be indispensable now, in an era of magazine history when such publications seem more dispensable than ever. Penrose knows that well, and becomes increasingly combative even as she realizes D'Agata's shortcomings and the factual flimsiness of his text.

At length we learn of D'Agata's woundedness after being splendidly exposed to his arrogance in Lukas Felix Schooler's portrayal. The writer is apt to link his nuanced view of prose rhythms to his big-picture concern for truth: Style becomes substance if it is magisterially commanded, in his view. The editor, brilliantly played by Eva Patton,  is more concerned with how D'Agata's values overlap reader engagement and how that drives high-end advertising in the digital age.

Writer (Lukas Felix Schooler) gives fact-checker what for.

But the conflict has deep roots in mass-market print journalism. The burgeoning Luce empire in 1936 sent photographer Walker Evans and writer James Agee down to Alabama to write about some white sharecroppers for Fortune magazine. The team became so engaged with the assignment that the right-drifting Fortune could not use the result. Released from their magazine obligations, Evans and Agee produced the unique classic "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men."

A rhetorically sweeping passage from Evans' introduction seems worth quoting here: "Ultimately, it is intended that this record and analysis be exhaustive, with no detail, however trivial it may seem, left  untouched, no relevancy avoided, which lies within the power of remembrance to maintain, of the intelligence to perceive, and of the spirit to persist in."

That persistent spirit is what the characters of "The Lifetime of a Fact" struggle to allow representation. But as Evans suggests in his lofty sentence and applying it to this play, all those obsessively gathered facts need accuracy even in a vain and lauded writer's heart-rending account of a young man's suicide in glitzy surroundings. Rending hearts soulfully shouldn't have the last word in responsible long-form journalism. 

"The Lifespan of a Fact," enhanced considerably by Tim Dick's two-location lighting design and Kerry Lee Chipman's efficient sets, is directed by Chris Saunders with precise attention to movement and gesture, addressing the audience seated on opposite sides of the stage. He also draws from his cast the magniloquence, feistiness, and anguish of their characters in a script with committee-like breadth and resonance (by Jeremy Kareken & David Murrell and Gordon Farrell). The production runs through Sept. 25 on the Phoenix Theatre's Basile Stage.

[Photos by Indyghostlight]