Saturday, October 29, 2022

Music that goes 'boo' fills Halloween weekend ISO program

Stefan Asbury brings the spookiness.
It's too bad guest conductor Stefan Asbury didn't shape his remarks from the podium more concisely Friday night, so that he could explain the relevance of Leonard Bernstein's "Serenade after Plato's 'Symposium'" in an Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra program of pieces having a conspicuous fear factor.

Rare as it is to open a review with remarks on oral program notes from the Hilbert Circle Theatre podium, I'm doing so not to question the inclusion of "Serenade" in a Halloween concert. But I wish that as an advocate for it, and to set up a context for the beautiful rendition Jennifer Frautschi was about to offer as guest soloist (the program will be repeated at 5:30 today), Asbury had spoken more to the point.

All four pieces on a well-chosen program have a narrative informing them, though the one behind Bartok's "Miraculous Mandarin" might pose a challenge to present to children, of whom there were many in Friday's audience. Still, Asbury might have urged the adults to go over the pieces in the second half at intermission. There is a fascinating match of orchestral inspiration and story in both Dvorak's "The Noonday Witch" and behind the "Mandarin" suite that concludes the program.

Bernstein's "Serenade" characterizes the speaking participants in the Platonic dialogue called "Symposium" or "The Banquet," a lively celebration of love — at the summit, in the delicate phrase of some translations, "man-boy love."  That might pose another challenge of communication to tender ears, but it can easily be glossed over. The personalities are vivid, but of course it's the clash of viewpoints that, as in any Platonic dialogue, is essential. The inebriated revels are buoyantly summed up in the finale.

As part of a Halloween weekend presentation, the partygoers at Agathon's house can properly be seen as spirits haunting the theme of love. Bernstein himself enjoyed frequent indulgence in parties, though

Violinist Jennifer Frautschi

that can't explain why "Serenade" may be his best work for orchestra. There are foreshadowings of "West Side Story" (1957) in some of the music, and in the Socrates-focused opening of the last movement, hints of the tortured musings of the Celebrant in "Mass" (1971).

The outsized Bernstein personality is here effectively harnessed as well as energized. This is a piece of dramatic suppleness and considerable lyrical impact, and Frautschi, working with sympathetic support from the podium, offered a charming, witty account of the solo role.

Opening Friday's concert was a spirited reading of "Night on Bald Mountain," the familiar Rimsky-Korsakov orchestration of Mussorgsky's evocation from a Gogol short story of a mythical gathering on a peak variously identified with Kyiv and Slovenia. Especially fascinating was the patience Asbury and the orchestra laid upon the long coda of the work, in which the witches' revels finally subside with the arrival of dawn.

Atmosphere is nearly the whole story there. What stands out about Dvorak's sojourn into witch folklore is its seamless blend of atmosphere with a specific, horrifying story of a boy's abduction from his  family as a witch's payback for an unkept promise to deliver the misbehaving child. In the struggle, the naughty kid, despite all the parental love, dies. The witch's roar of triumph, as riveting in its own way as the finale of the Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique" or, on a smaller scale, the devil in Stravinsky's "Soldier's Tale," was spine-chilling in Friday's performance. As the ISO played it, the whole piece was so well-knit as to convey the impression that the musicians really believed in it. That's essential to the play-acting many people are inspired to take part in over the Halloween celebration.

Ratcheting up this factor with the benefits of modernism allowing for more extremities of expressiveness is the Bartok piece that followed. The complete music for the iconoclastic work is also worth hearing, but the suite has all that's necessary to convey the Hungarian composer's intent to shock his contemporaries. Friday's performance proved that shocking quality is still intact a century after the "Mandarin" premiere. Asbury's intense communication with the ISO offered episode after episode of fully committed playing, as ferocious as all get-out when necessary. Snarling trombones in glissando can sum up the season nearly by themselves.

Thursday, October 27, 2022

Ensemble 4.1 soars on winds of chamber-music change

Oboist Joerg Schneider crossed the stage between pieces to inform his colleague and Ensemble 4.1

Ensemble 4.1 engages in continual search to underscore its uniqueness.

clarinetist Alexander Glucksmann that the "piano-windtet"'s engagement via the Ensemble Music Society Wednesday night was the group's 125th concert.

The German chamber-music group, with its unusual make-up of oboe-bassoon-horn-clarinet-piano, has a 10-year history with a lot of globetrotting experience under its belt, Glucksmann added in remarks to the Indiana History Center audience. 

Statistics clearly are a point of pride to Ensemble 4.1, whose name reflects our digitized world where 2.0 signals a twice-as-good 1.0. Here it transparently signals the combination of four wind instrumentalists and one pianist: Thomas Hoppe, familiar as one of the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis' veteran assistants at the keyboard. He was plying that part of his trade in the same hall just last month.

Hoppe returned to the city to display another aspect of his artistry with this group, which also includes Sebastian Schindler, horn, and Christoph Knitt, bassoon. The musicians continually search for new material that fits their personnel. A fan of theirs, who Glucksmann says is regularly on the hunt, several years ago found N.H. Rice's Quintet in E-flat, op. 2, which occupied the middle position in Wednesday's concert.

Next to nothing is known about Rice, whose late-romantic style in this piece is all about charm and strikes the ear as close to salon music. The four-movement work was a novelty worth hearing, though the composer seems modestly capricious in how he combines the instruments. Much of the music explores balancing solo and duo passages with full-ensemble statements. 

There's a lot of imitative writing to help tie Rice's inspirations together. The finale is irrepressibly upbeat, with lots of rising phrases making clear that simple delight is the best impression to leave with whatever audiences Rice may have been able to attract in his lifetime. Ensemble 4.1 comes to the rescue for his posterity by including the E-flat quintet in its repertoire.

To put Mozart's quintet for the same forces, also in E-flat (K. 452) in the program's first (instead of the scheduled third) place was a late inspiration, apparently. The switch worked well, because compositional facility is here joined to genius, and Ensemble 4.1 could strut its stuff. Mozart, in mature form here, lays out a slow first-movement introduction with suggestions of fanfare, and we know we are heading into the musical stratosphere. In the third movement, there are signs of the quasi-operatic writing Mozart applied to actual operas at the height of his career. Rice's salon-bound musings would just have to wait.

They were placed just after intermission to allow Mozart to command Ensemble 4.1's initial impression on Indianapolis. The double-reed players were particularly remarkable in the fullness and steadiness of their playing. Across from them, wearing distinctive white shoes, were the equally adept hornist and clarinetist.  (The group's current group portrait, inserted above, appears to show a different horn player.) Ensemble 4.1 must have a thing for comfortable footwear, if what I could see of the others' is an indication.

Hoppe's warmth of personality came through in his playing throughout, and there was never any doubt as to how essential a simpatico pianist is to this combination's success. Tonal balance and pinpoint coordination were the norm. That was amply demonstrated in an amazing arrangement of George Gershwin's immortal "American in Paris," which concluded the program. 

By dividing the material among solo instruments, each with its own character, Ensemble 4.1 confirmed Gershwin's genius. "An American in Paris" fits well on the symphonic pops programs where it often appears, but it is also worth deeply reveling in for its breadth of color, melody and infectious rhythms. All these aspects came through point by point in Ensemble 4.1's performance, which was rapturously greeted at the end. The band kept the fun level high in the encore, a bagatelle titled  "Tempo di Beguine" (a dance form most Americans only know via the Cole Porter song) by the late 20th-century Swiss composer Hans Stähli. 

Ensemble Music Society is off to a good start living up to its season slogan, "Altogether Brilliant."

Monday, October 24, 2022

Round the world with samba: Henrik Meurkens fuses his harmonica with WDR Big Band

Dutch-German harmonica maestro Henrik Meurkens

 Inherently unaggressive and seductive in tone, the harmonica can also be a voice of unexpected power in the hands of a player as adept as Henrik Meurkens. Performances of such pieces as "Body and Soul" with a small group on YouTube can incline you to think of this constantly exploring musician as the John Coltrane of the harmonica. That's how much variety of harmony and rhythm he can put into his improvising.

His fitness for all contexts is often narrowed to a samba focus, yet appears as navigationally windswept as the sailboat on the cover of "Samba Jazz Odyssey" (Zoho). This disc provides a glorious big-band setting for Meurkens' most familiar genre, the samba. Here the soft-focus nature of the harmonica is at home, and Meurkens never seems to run out of ways to make the instrument sing. 

Based in Cologne, Germany, the WDR Big Band has long collaborated with eminent soloists, many of them U.S.-based, as Meurkens has been for many years. His solo playing neatly folds into the large-ensemble arrangements (conducted by Michael Philip Mossman) from the first track on. 

Immediately after "A Night in Jakarta," we get a change of atmosphere in "Manhattan Samba," with its more bristling edge signaled by the unison sax and trumpet lines at the start. Bent tones become more conspicuous in Meurkens' solo.

"Prague in March" spotlights Meurkens against the rhythm section, a reduction in force with which the star is thoroughly comfortable. The harmonica solo just flies in the airborne freedom of "Sambatropolis." The notion of making a variety of settings suitable for  soloist and big band is confirmed by the open-road cruising in "Mountain Drive," smooth with some big accents.

"You Again" achieves even greater variety by incorporating a string of WDR solos. Billy Test, an American who was among the finalists in the last American Pianists Awards in jazz, plays a fine solo in "Bolero Para Paquito," another Meurkens original, like most of the set. "Samba Tonto" is notable for the interplay between Meurkens and Paul Shigihara's guitar. 

All told, the concentration on Meurkens' affinity with the Afro-Brazilian genre never becomes tiresome. The level of inspiration, and the execution required to support it, remains high throughout.

Saturday, October 22, 2022

Chinese immigration to the USA: The door creaks painfully open in 'The Chinese Lady'

The story of the restricted, uncomfortable movement of native Chinese to America proceeds from the

Teenage Afong Moy displays exotic chopsticks in the 1830s.

unique story of how the first Chinese woman to come to the U.S. got here and what she learned and endured.

Afong Moy arrived in this country at 14 in 1834, she tells us repeatedly in "The Chinese Lady," which Indiana Repertory Theatre presents on the Upperstage through Nov. 6.  This unprecedented pioneer presents her story through the kind of nesting-doll approach Lloyd Suh adopts for his 90-minute drama. 

By that I mean that IRT patrons are presented with the performances Afong Moy was required to give as an exotic exhibit. Enclosing it, Suh sets down  the historically advancing story as he takes the character from shy teen to senior citizen in her adopted homeland. The tension the play creates is a remarkable achievement. The IRT's mostly white audience is asked to balance the friendly exoticism of the 19th-century lecture-demonstration and what remains of the dominant culture's resistance to fully accepting today the "all sorts and conditions of men" that I was instructed to pray for as a young Episcopalian.

What Afong Moy is trained to see as an exercise in mutual understanding between alien cultures eventually puts cracks in her naivete as she matures. As a girl and young woman, she has transmuted her exploitation into what she chooses to interpret as natural curiosity about the Other. That is purported to lead to greater understanding and acceptance among cultures around the world. It often doesn't work that way, she finds out.

The character of Atung, the translator who accompanies Afong Moy in her presentations, looks at these thoroughly processed exhibitions with a jaundiced eye. For the captivated Americans, what is not seen as charming elegance (the cultural stature of tea) may be taken in as shocking barbarism (the drastic foot-binding practiced on upper-class Chinese girls). To him, it's all show biz masquerading as cross-cultural awareness.

Trieu Tran as Atung, the translator

The employment of both Atung and Afong Moy eventually by the successful charlatan P.T. Barnum also leads to a break in their relationship after the title character is discarded by the famed 19th-century impresario. Atung (nobly and insightfully portrayed by Trieu Tran) is worn out by the misrepresentation and servitude his job demands of him. He comes to ruefully accept humiliation as part of the price he must pay as the result of white racism. On the other hand, Afong Moy is cast loose with her hard-won knowledge, and in brief scenes of time travel up to the present recounts the horrors of  anti-Chinese prejudice in U.S. history.
IRT produces Lloyd Suh's play. 

The setting opens and closes repeatedly as each new stage of Afung Moy's story is revealed. Junghyun Georgia Lee's set manages to encompass both the emotional remove of the characters from their 19th-century audiences and the exoticism meant to impress it upon them.

In the title role Mi Kang miraculously changes Afong Moy's appearance and gradually aging manner of speaking and gesturing. In the October 21 performance I saw, at every stage she never failed to embody the character's appeal and constraints. In her role's larger sense, she conveyed the limitations to American understanding of and sympathy with Afong Moy's countrymen. 

Ralph B. Peña's direction allows each actor to present a full-fledged portrait in which the identity remains but with the toll of lived experience effecting subtle but withering changes. The process calls to mind The Picture of Dorian Gray,  but without the moral burden placed upon the Oscar Wilde character. If there's a moral burden to be placed anywhere, it's upon Americans past (and possibly present, too) who fail to rise to the challenge of seeing people unlike them as they really are and as they should be allowed to be. The dwindling white majority will not be able to avoid having its nose pressed into the mess it has made.

Other aspects of the production — Fabian Obispo's soundscape, Oliver Wason's lighting and Linda Cho's costumes — place us in a world of fantasy as appropriate, figuratively a two-way scrim through which Suh's characters and his audiences must labor to achieve authentic vision of one another. 

The playwright has been selective in shedding light on aspects of anti-Chinese bias here. Not everything relevant to that can be covered in a play meant to examine one isolated victim's difficulties. Why Chinese immigrants were channeled into laundry and restaurant work in American big cities, for example, is another part of the story of how alien circumstances and dominant prejudices can shape group identity.

But Suh's focus on one woman programmed to advocate for universal understanding and respect, then discovering she is understood as a stereotype forced to stay as such or be rejected, is amply compelling and necessarily strikes the American conscience deeply.

[Photos by Noelani Langille and Zach Rosing]

Friday, October 21, 2022

A golden reprise: Dance Kaleidoscope opens 50th season with 'Carmina Burana'

Usually trying to project a fresh perspective on theatrical and musical works I've blogged about before,

Up jumps spring: Stuart Lewis, Paige Robinson, Kieran King, Marie Kuhns

I avoided first reading my review of the last time Dance Kaleidoscope performed David Hochoy's scintillating version of "Carmina Burana." The perennially popular 1937 cantata by Carl Orff brought to modern music 13th-century secular poetry found in the south German monastery of Benediktbeuren.

I hope it won't be seen as laziness that I invite readers of this entry to call up my 2014 review,  especially if they would like to see this show today through Sunday. My attempt eight years ago to detail Hochoy's vision in words I cannot put better now. Orff's style in this work, which he was to pursue from then on after the fierce modernism of his youth, is rhythmically lively, melodically seductive and explicitly aimed toward immediate understanding. Hochoy's vision departs fruitfully from the texts sometimes and addresses the verbal meaning obliquely elsewhere. 

The score is the guide: "O  Fortuna," the severe invocation to the enduring reign of blind luck over human life, is given a cathedral setting when it first appears. The dancers are helmeted and initially turn their backs on the audience. Reprised at the end, "O Fortuna" carries forward the atmosphere of joy from the immediately preceding music. There is triumph about the wide, face-forward stance of the company, even though the text laments "this detestable life." It's not as though Hochoy has taken a wrong turn here: the bright light of the "daytime" first act returns in the music, too, underscored by costuming that crowns the dancers with halos. They are angels free of any Judeo-Christian theology.  Clearly, they invite us to seek causes for celebration in this world even as we rue the powers that exercise capricious control over us.

But I want to add a few things that struck me anew about Thursday's opening night with the current company on the mainstage of Indiana Repertory Theatre.

*The flow and precision of the ensemble dancing reaches a pinnacle in this setting. It replicates the force of the choral portions of Orff's work, which dominate the vocal solos, as intense and sometimes bizarre as they may be. "Carmina Burana," despite its origin in lyric poetry from anonymous sources, puts the individualism of these poems in a restless, communal context. The distance the dancers cover over the course of the work could almost be measured in miles. The scenario is often humanity on the run, but the message essentially is "we're all in this together." The choreography here shows collective virtuosity, both in small groups and in the sweep of the entire company. 

*The costuming by Barry Doss emphasizes the dancers' command over space. Whether worn or waved, it gives a special breadth

That's a wrap: Paige Robinson in "Carmina Burana"

to every gesture. The episode after the opening chorus makes spectacular use of long white cloths,  climactically focused on a central dancer (Paige Robinson), wrapped in (pun intended) kaleidoscopic patterns resembling origami.  

*There is no anxious historicism about the way the dancers look in either movement or costuming. There are pagan suggestions in the portrayal of nascent spring, the men resembling satyrs, but this is not Daphnis et Chloe, another landmark in Hochoy's career as artistic director. Medieval strictures are not emphasized visually, thus echoing the freedom the Goliard poets must have felt in composing their literally profane verses.

*Swerves from what the cantata presents: I liked the setting Hochoy devised for a small group of female dancers to go with the children's chorus' brief appearance in the score. It's like a song of innocence plopped down in the midst of songs of experience. And once again, Hochoy's casting aside any temptation to mickey-mouse the celebration of universal binge-drinking is to be applauded. Finally, the song of the roasted swan is reconceived to emphasize human cruelty to our own kind rather than allowing the lament of the painfully turning bird to tickle our fancy.

*Yet again, Laura E. Glover's lighting makes every outline clear, always complementing the choreography's statuesque moments as well as the most exuberant ones. Her freedom from literalism works hand in glove with the richness of the choreographer's imagination.

[Photos by Lora Olive]

Sunday, October 16, 2022

Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra opener includes concerto appearance by APA competition winner

 The Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra opened its 2022-23 season Saturday with a work by an African-

Kenny Broberg forged a clear path through Schumann.

American composer. Let me make clear at the start that I think the diversity push in American classical music is a positive thing, and not because the evidence is great that a lot of masterpieces are being uncovered or more widely exposed as a result. Jessie Montgomery's "Banner" does not seem to be in that class.

Unfamiliar music should be publicly aired if the artists — and, in the case of orchestras, conductors — really believe in it and can get their assisting musicians  to perform it as if they did too. Listeners should expect that some questions about choices, and even a few duds, will emerge. If you scan orchestra histories and program books, you'll find many pieces that faded into dusty neglect, and perhaps never had a place in what is taken as the standard repertoire. That doesn't mean they didn't deserve an outing in the first (or second, or third, etc.) place.

So of course any indication that "classical music," a term forever linked to creative work placed on a pedestal, has in fact had contributions by black composers is to be celebrated.  "Banner" seems to have incorporated the composers' mixed feelings about our national anthem and the challenge implicitly posed against it by what was once known as "the Negro national anthem": "Lift Every Voice and Sing." 

Jessie Montgomery: "Banner" worth hearing once.

It carries out Montgomery's reflections on that challenge, translated into orchestral terms. I found "Banner" kind of a messy way to embody the composer's feelings. It worked as a vehicle for doing so, but it was so free with dissonance and deliberate confusion that it made little impact musically on me. 

I will leave it to stew in its own juices here, but not before commending Matthew Kraemer for programming music he evidently believes in. All musicians responsible for creating concerts of merit, artistic engagement, and public interest should do so. Not everything played with commitment once or twice needs to be imperishable.

Familiar music formed the bulk of the program at Butler University's Schrott Center for the Arts. The centerpiece was Schumann's Piano Concerto in A major, with Kenny Broberg in the solo role. Broberg won the top prize in the 2021 American Pianists Awards, making his mark particularly in music by Alexander Scriabin, a flamboyant Russian whom many listeners find chillingly (paradoxically)  repellent. 

He was thus notably responsive to the flamboyant side of Schumann, embodied in one of two personas the German composer created to express his divided nature. The "Florestan" part of Broberg's artistry was especially pronounced in the first movement, and the accompaniment that Kraemer drew from the orchestra followed suit. The "Intermezzo" that serves as the work's compact slow movement seemed to blend elements of the two personalities, the other being the calming, steadily focused "Eusebius." Dramatically linked to the finale, the middle movement recalls the way Beethoven bonded vigorous finales to their more thoughtful predecessors in the Violin Concerto and the Fifth Symphony.

The way the ICO and Broberg played the finale was persuasive, even though it may have discarded or transformed Schumann's characteristic blend of personalities into a Beethoven style of no-nonsense assertion. Such an interpretation worked well, and it certainly put Broberg's personal stamp on a familiar masterpiece.

What didn't work quite as well for me was his use of the printed score and the consequent need of a page turner. I detected little rehearsal preparation of the two figures at the piano, but the performance was not seriously disturbed. Though it's not a requirement, memorization of standard concerto repertoire is the norm. 

The only time I've seen an exception was long ago at the Ravinia Festival, when Alfred Brendel essayed the Schoenberg concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I didn't know the piece at all then, so I can't vouch for how secure the pianist's performance was, but his face certainly looked anxious, in Brendel's scholarly manner, throughout. And of course, the Schoenberg concerto is not standard repertoire, so who could blame the Austrian pianist for needing the score?

Broberg certainly played as if he knew his piece well. The performance was both technically and interpretively shipshape. First oboist Leonid Sirotkin deserved the solo bow Kraemer signaled him to take at the end.

Passing over Hugo Wolf's "Italian Serenade," an attractive late-romantic milestone that in this performance had a few coordination problems between the viola soloist and the ensemble, I'll turn to the concert's other familiar piece, Felix Mendelssohn's "Italian" Symphony, No. 4 in A major. 

The orchestra interestingly seemed less comfortable with the fast music of the first movement than with the faster music of the finale, which was splendidly played. The middle movements had their charms, though the evocation of religious processions in the second could have been a touch more somber. Mendelssohn's thoroughly acquired Protestant sensibility influenced his cool response to Catholic pageantry.

In this work generally, the north German composer of supreme self-control and facility reacted to his transalpine experience in the effusive Italian capital with warmth and gratitude. The result has been celebrated by orchestras and audiences ever since. But to reiterate my first point, it's not essential to have certifiable masterpieces only in concert programs today, contrasted with a commissioned premiere now and then. Music that may sooner or later waft away into distant memories also deserves a place, whether it carries the banner of diversity or not.

Saturday, October 15, 2022

ISO Classical Season opens with the spotlight on two of its principals

Sometimes an enduring statement in musical history stands out from its surroundings for a variety of reasons. These questions may arise in retrospect: Does it fill some kind of unmet need that perhaps wasn't immediately evident when the ink was hardly dry on the score? Or does it indicate without delay that it may be making a bid for immortality, not by "going for the gold" with a grandiose claim, but simply because it is uniquely appealing?

The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra opened its Classical Series Friday night with four works that make distinctive claims on audience attention. The Hilbert Circle Theatre concert (repeated Saturday afternoon) featured one new work that was omitted in the weekend preview Thursday morning. Its special standing had a lot to do with the music that inspired it. Beethoven's 7th symphony has a famous slow movement that was so impressive from the start that the audience practically demanded to hear it again at its premiere.

Making powerful use of the rhythmic and harmonic features of that movement, Carlos Simon's "Fate Now Conquers" is a five-minute celebration of Beethoven's genius that

Pete Oundjian has been the ISO's "fireman."

premiered just over two years ago in Philadelphia, a city that for Americans will always stand for a unique debut in the non-musical sphere.

Guest conductor Peter Oundjian said in the preconcert "Words on Music" conversation that the eminent American composer John Adams recommended the piece to him. Oundjian himself has recent historical significance with the ISO.  He's something of a fireman (in baseball terms, an effective relief pitcher who neutralizes threats from the opposition and leads the team to triumph). In this case the opposition was the  pandemic, and in May 2021 Oundjian helped demonstrate that our side won as he returned to the podium and led the orchestra after a 429-day hiatus. 

In this weekend's appearance, he got to introduce the orchestra and its patrons to a young composer whose rethinking of a repertoire staple in fresh terms amounted to an example of new music that has some unmistakable resonance with the past. Yet its profile throbbed with new life. "Fate Now Conquers" was both compact and compellingly major in implication. It draws from the mysteriousness of the Beethoven original, yet strides ahead with its hard-won confidence as well. 

The rattling figures that help animate a slow movement that is defiantly not slow at all were reconfigured as 21st-century punctuation for the phrase of the title. Simon borrowed the words from something Beethoven said,  indicating that the need to bow to fate could nonetheless preserve something essential about personal triumph over obstacles. 

Triumph is something that Mikhail Glinka's Overture to "Ruslan and Lyudmila" has accomplished over anything else the Russian composer wrote, including the opera it was first attached to. Credited with putting Russia on the world musical stage, Glinka is familiar today solely through this strikingly peppy overture, with its catchy contrasting second theme. It's about as long as Simon's piece, and it made a riveting appetizer before the program's most substantial work, Brahms' Concerto in A minor for Violin, Cello, and Orchestra.

The Brahms "Double" became a landmark because of its rarity — the two solo instruments seldom are showcased together — and the way it has surmounted its initially tepid reception. Its stunning mastery was fully addressed Friday by two first-chair ISO players: concertmaster Kevin Lin and principal cellist Austin Huntington. This was the second time I've heard Huntington as one of the work's partners. The last time was with Lin's predecessor, Zachary DePue. Friday's performance was even more assured, thanks especially to the corresponding energy imparted to the accompaniment under Oundjian's baton.

The sterling rapport achieved by Lin and Huntington was especially fetching in a couple of dialogues in triplets in the first movement. And the soloists' tone in the finale complemented some excellent playing in the winds, the palette of colors almost making the two string instruments honorary winds in the best sense.  

The second movement featured a nice shaping of dynamics, and where the melodic line is unified the effect seemed to symbolize the high degree of rapport. That these two young principals  bring that rapport to bear in more than this piece was confirmed by their virtuoso encore, the Handel/Halvorsen "Passacaglia," which was greeted with shouts of approval by an audience thankfully well supplied with young people.

That ovation was almost greater than the applause generator that ended the concert: Ravel's orchestration of Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition."  These two composers are forever linked in the public's mind, because the French composer's skill in orchestration has helped ensure the immortality of the Russian composer and his suite of descriptive pieces for solo piano. 

Except for a second Promenade that had sort of a shuffling feeling about it, this "Pictures" was dapper and assured. The sharp satire in the picture of a rich man and a beggar ("Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle") could hardly have been more keenly etched: lofty self-importance contrasted with persistent wheedling. 

Mark Ortwein's account of the saxophone solo that sustains the atmosphere of "The Old Castle" was again well worth hearing. The last iteration of the "Promenade" music, following the "Catacombs" episode, was redolent with the musical fright factor so appropriate for this Halloween season.  

Finally, after the witch Baba-Yaga's heart-stopping ride, there came "The Great Gate of Kiev," a structure which never existed even before the deplorable Russian invasion of the Ukrainian capital, which we have learned to call "Kyiv." This must have aroused a little extra excitement on Monument Circle, where, for the first time, the concert was broadcast live. That innovation, announced by CEO James Johnson to Friday's audience, will be a feature of the Classical Series for the whole season, and may lure a few more paying customers inside the hall.

Friday, October 14, 2022

Short Play Festival opens at the Shore in 'Rita From Across the Street'

For the New Jersey residents I once knew well, "the Shore" always had the saltwater aura of real life. But I was just  a summer visitor to my cousins and their parents, so my view was distorted by the larger-than-life reality of summering somewhere along the Garden State's Atlantic coast. 

I learned less about their Bergen County lives that shaped their home and school existence for most of the year. The Shore was the respite from all that, and it presented the illusion of meaning more, thanks to the leisure industry and the upscale amenities available to some. For young people, it could be hanging-out paradise.

In "Rita From Across the Street," the promise of something more for year-round as well as seasonal residents holds out the fragility and transitory quality of human connections. The economy is based on pleasure, cheap in some senses, overpriced in others. Shore life is embedded in Lou Harry, the creator and director of this play, set in Wildwood, his hometown. 

"Rita From Across the Street" opened the third annual Short Play Festival of American Lives Theatre  Thursday night. The five programs that make up the festival will run through Sunday at the District Theatre. This production has the feeling of being tried and tested, thoroughly workshopped, but also as fresh as theater can be. 

Mother and daughter pass their porch time separately.

The simply designed playing areas are adjacent front porches, one of them at the home of Mark, who rents out the place next door to a family headed for the summer by Donna. She fights off ennui generated by the absence of her husband, working from home elsewhere, and her uneasy relationship with their teenage daughter, Connie. She enjoys picking at the scabs of Mark's old wounds — a wife and a store proprietorship both gone forever — and his rooted conscientiousness in caring for his deeply troubled brother, Joey.

Donna, given a discontented, prickly affability in Sara Castillo Dandurand's performance, hints tenaciously that Mark should date the single woman of the name and location that provide the play's title. 

The routine of being from elsewhere and feeling unsettled can yield its own kind of pedantry. Inlanders who spend any time at the shore know immediately the smell of the saltwater air. How can that not be intoxicating? Yet Donna hates smells, she says, and is pedantic about correctness in language and attitudes: she's a "seasonal resident," not a tourist. This isn't fueled by anything more profound than her continual swigging of bottled beer and browsing her iPhone. 

Pushing back against Donna's conversational thrusts, Mark trots out his amused perspective initially. What strikes him most crucially about his life takes a while to emerge. There's a late scene between Donna and Mark that elaborates on the fantasies that shore life generates and makes their unattainability profound and moving. Clay Mabbitt as Mark reached some sort of transcendent level here, with Donna taking it in raptly but anxiously.

Mark's understanding of things is up for grabs.
There is a parade of short scenes along the way, Chekhovian snapshots of porch interactions among the three main characters. As the action deepens, the scenes broaden. The play is cannily paced so as to make the revelations carry the impact of both anticipation and exposure. This applies also to what we learn about the deeply disaffected daughter, Connie (Brittany Magee) who slouches and grumbles at adults dismissively as she indulges in her book-reading pastime. Her relationship with another young Wildwood resident, Rose (Maresa Kelly), explains a lot about her feistiness.

The structure of the play is stimulating, given the variety of the scenes and the surprises they toss up, never forced and somehow inevitable. Joey (Adam Thatcher), who repeats obsessively "you don't understand" to his brother in the one scene where he appears, accidentally illuminates the frequent failure of life to come up with good answers. 

More than a half-century ago, I struggled for self-understanding while living about 30 miles north of Wildwood in Margate City, just south of the tawdry tourist mecca of Atlantic City, where I taught at a private school. Across the street from the motel I had a room in was a relic of the kind one finds here and there along the paths of tourism, like the concrete ship Mark mentions in his dreamy dialogue with his lonely neighbor.  

My abandoned destination was a small hotel in the form of an elephant that everyone called Lucy. When I walked toward the beach I would pass this decrepit, odd inn.  Even in the off-season, I was aware of the summer boom to come, which once had favored Lucy among other attractions now succeeded by others.

I had to move out on Memorial Day weekend, even though that was just a couple of weeks before the end of the school year, so the motel owners could make big money. They were very nice about it. I understood. In the bleak months before that, on wintry walks along the shore,  I enjoyed recalling to  myself the line  "On Margate sands, I can connect nothing with nothing," 

That's from an immortal poem of the 20th century, "The Waste Land," by T.S. Eliot, and the reference is to a different Margate.  To recall it repeatedly in New Jersey was self-involved English-major stuff, I guess. But connections are hard to come by for the characters in "Rita From Across the Street" as well.  And Eliot's famous line mates well with Joey's toneless complaint.

This play brings us into the humor of snapped or avoided connections and delivers us at the disturbing far side of that struggle. The cast scrupulously details the strife and shows the possibility that real connections might be made with some prospect of satisfaction. You can't get that at a boardwalk souvenir store.

Thursday, October 13, 2022

Julian Velasco's 'As We Are': New areas of exploration for classical saxophone

It's not surprising that new music for classical saxophone would find ways to fold in the influence of other music for that instrument while honoring the obvious wealth of expressiveness and technical aplomb

Julian Velasco boosts contemporary profile of classical sax.
common in the classical tradition.

Julian Velasco applied his wide experience in premiering new saxophone music to win the first Emerging Artist Competition,  established to celebrate Cedille Records' 30th anniversary. The Chicago label set the competition to reward musicians in the metropolitan area with a debut recording. Velasco, a 27-year-old Evanston resident, sounds like an obvious choice based on "As We Are," released by Cedille in August.

The program highlights Velasco's artistry on soprano, alto, and tenor saxophones and his thorough compatibility in music with either piano or electronic accompaniment. 

The composition leading off the recording and inspiring its title is a good example of Velasco's receptivity and polish. Tenor saxophone, an odd resident in the classical-music neighborhood, is paired with piano in Steven Banks' "Come As You Are," a four-movement work that pays tributes to members of the composer's family. 

Banks displays a personal adaptation of Neo-romanticism in music that honors such staples of black religious culture as "Wade in the Water" and "My Lord, What a Morning." Yet Banks moves freely away from quotation or variation in each movement, allowing such titles as "Lift My Eyes" and "Strength of My Life" to hint at the musical and familial associations. 

Among the works also treated to first recordings is Amanda Harberg's "Court Dances," which harks back to social music of the 16th and 17th centuries. Different associations from those that interest Banks are evoked, with a parallel interest in kinds of music that stimulate and sustain people in their everyday lives. In this case, the pleasures of the aristocracy are evoked in 21st-century visions of  "Courante," "Air de Cour," and "Tambourin," as the three movements are titled. The finale brings in some swooping, flutter-tongued, jazzy exuberance to its ancient model. It's easy to hear the emotional commitment Velasco typically brings to the material he adopts — and in this case, adapts: a soprano-sax version of a work originally for flute and piano.

The depths of the saxophonist's musicianship are plumbed in David Maslanka's "Tone Studies No. 5: Wie bist du, Seele." The late composer's intention for this "study" is to arrive at the exalted state of the Bach chorale on which it is based. If heard as patiently as Velasco lays it out, it seems a wholly satisfactory way of rediscovering and reanimating old music.

The more explicit modernism of John Anthony Lennon's "Distances Within Me" is the other duo showcase. As with the other works here for two musicians, the listener is offered another welcome exhibition of influences on today's composers. At the same time, "Distances Within Me" displays the  receptive personality of the saxophonist and pianist Winston Choi's ability always to meet him fully halfway.

Extended techniques, as well as an amazing interpretive outreach, complete the portrait of Velasco in two works for saxophone and prerecorded tape. Dating back to Mario Davidovsky's "Synchronisms" of the 1960s, I have always experienced music for live performer and electronics as a kind of rapport I'm eavesdropping on. I can admire the craftsmanship of how well the onstage performer and the prerecorded tape fit together, without being particularly engaged with the result. I can only get so much out of the symbolic pleasure of "man versus machine" reaching common ground.

I feel that way about Elijah Daniel Smith's "Animus" and "Christopher Cerrone's "Liminal Highway," the two contemporary pieces on "As We Are" that extend the live/taped tradition. Both of them are imaginative constructs that reveal another dimension of Velasco's virtuosity. I'm glad they are here as part of a well-deserved showcase, but I doubt future listenings to this disc will go past Track 9, Harberg's  spirited "Tambourin."

But, of course, happy anniversary, Cedille! For three decades, you've done plenty to make any Midwestern music-lover proud.


Saturday, October 8, 2022

'King John': Bard Fest dons one of Shakespeare's most uneasy crowns

King John in meltdown mode

If we heard his name in school, it was as the monarch from whom English nobles wrung a few limited rights in the Magna Carta, a document taken to be the narrow opening through which eventually poured the liberties our forebears came to enjoy as the foundation of modern democracy. Apart from that, his troubled reign could hardly count as a landmark in the progress of Western civilization. Nor does he figure as a human-rights hero.

King John represented the Plantagenet family that eventually lost the crown to the Tudors, to whose eminence through Queen Elizabeth I the playwright owed his success. As free an artist as we like to imagine Shakespeare to be, like most who rely on patronage he had to trim his sails accordingly. The Stuart line barely got to enjoy his genius first hand before he retired to Stratford and a relatively early death.

 "The Life and Death of King John" is thus one of the history plays in which a dim view of the royal past prevails. There's no fall mightier than that of a defeated dynasty. The play also offers audiences from its day to our own a withering perspective on the Catholic church and its power politics. And the work reminds us that, despite the 20th-century history of France and England as allies, there is a much longer history of rivalry and hostility between the two nations. In its twilight era, the French kingdom lent crucial help to Americans rebelling against the English crown. Et voilà!

 Indy Bard Fest is presenting the play with the pursed-lips title through next weekend at Shelton Auditorium of Butler University. That's the steeply raked room that was formerly the home of Edyvean Repertory Theatre at Christian Theological Seminary. The production has actor entrances down the aisles as well as from the wings. It gives you the sense of consequential actions happening before your eyes. Everything feels open to your examination. That helps make up for the fact that the work falls far short of masterpiece status. The goings-on deserve scrutiny, and they are presented with dedication and skill.

It's to the credit of the organization and director Doug Powers that the rarely seen play is given an outing here at all. And it merits one because there are many signs of the wit and pathos that Shakespeare was to develop in presenting stories in which his sympathies were more engaged than they seem to be here. The poetry is technically assured and at times strives toward the playwright's heights at the turn of the 17th century.

Shakespeare's insightful perspective, one that exceeds perhaps any other literary master, emerges through the particulars of a few of the characters.  A couple of them stand for types of people that Shakespeare came to present in ways that enabled him to flesh out his immortal gifts. One of them is the steel-hearted functionary who revels in the power of the institution he serves. Here it is the papal legate Cardinal Pandulph, charged with keeping the peace between restive Catholic kingdoms by the stern exercise of ultimate temporal and spiritual command. He is brilliantly played in this show by Matt Anderson. 

Another is a hellish version of the wronged woman, deprived of her entitlements and railing against those who have barred her family from its royal due. She is Duchess Constance, who is so indelibly enacted by Georgeanna Smith Wade that it's a shame the actor must later take on the brief secondary role of a mortally wounded French lord. (Such doubling of duties is inevitable when the dramatis personae are numerous but it's impractical to line up handfuls of other actors for minor roles. Here it's not always marked by enough vocal, costuming or makeup changes to be adequately distinctive.)

Philip the Bastard goes his own way.

What amounts to a major bursting out of Shakespeare's genius is the character of another wronged person, Philip the Bastard. His fortunes having been stamped by illegitimacy, he is compelled to forge his own identity. It's a severe one, and Shakespeare often presents him as a monologuist with a satirical turn of phrase and the determination to make his way unaided by much other than his nerve and intelligence. He is played with articulate ferocity by Taylor Cox, who manages to make the part more than  ceaseless ranting, tricked out in resentment.  He commands the stage whenever he is present, and the Bastard's true patriotism stands out in contrast to the title character and his nobles, who are self-serving even when they understandably turn on their sovereign.

King John is the kind of powerful person who flails helplessly, caught up in his own privilege and power but not deft in exercising them. All ages and places are familiar with this sort of inept, dangerous authority. On opening night, Zachariah Stonerock had a nuanced grasp of all aspects of the role. His King John tries to be a decisive commander-in-chief and antagonist to his French counterpart Philip, played with hints of nobility by Kevin Caraher. 

The two kings' protracted colloquy with the First Citizen of Angiers (Anderson's other role) is the play's closest thing to comic relief (outside of some of the Bastard's lines), as the kings are forced to deal with the recalcitrant French town as unwilling allies. 

But the title character is also a portrait of cruelty and desperation, traits that lead to his unlamented demise. The downfall is shown with sufficient evidence of his suffering, but that probably does little to arouse the viewer's sympathy for John, especially with the royal factotum Hubert's example of moral fortitude nearby; the role was stunningly played by Tony Armstrong. 

This oddly blank emotional effect of John's decline to my mind is no fault of  the actor's or the director's management of the material. It's simply a matter of how little Shakespeare's mastery of the mighty iambic-pentameter line he inherited from Christopher Marlowe can foretell the breaking of all categories and influences that Shakespeare was solely soon to achieve. His main practice for that achievement in "King John" is the unforgettable character of the Bastard.

Friday, October 7, 2022

Divided world of the baroque: Europa Galante splits Palladium program between Bach and Vivaldi

Europa Galante founder Fabio Biondi in action

Some fascinating indications of Italianate flair showed up in the first piece in Europa Galante's concert Thursday night at the Palladium. Soloist-founder Fabio Biondi varied the two-note tag at the end of the leading phrase of the Presto finale of J.S. Bach's Violin Concerto in G minor.

The tag is literally an echo, and at first Biondi played it that way. Eighteenth-century music was fond of echo effects, and Bach often used them in cantatas so that the echoed phrase reinforced the meaning of the sung text preceding it. But the tag can also be rendered as emphatic punctuation, matching the ensemble's manner. It's very assertive music, and the reinforcement helps. There's room also to ornament those two notes, and Biondi did that as well toward the end. All told, appealing variety in one little detail.

The modest-sized audience at the Center for the Performing Arts showplace was to find out after intermission how much hand-in-glove Biondi and Europa Galante, the original-instruments ensemble he founded in 1989, are with Antonio Vivaldi. The rapport with Bach, the German master who never visited Italy (unlike his cosmopolitan contemporary G.F. Handel, whom Italian musical circles knew as "Il Sassone") was more distant. 

I was glad for the perky performance of one of Bach's "greatest hits" — Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, with its solo parts neatly shared by a flutist (on the mellow-toned baroque instrument) and Biondi, with of course the other substantial soloing assigned to the harpsichord. The famous first-movement keyboard cadenza was dramatically fashioned, with an especially theatrical pause — hands raised — before the unaccompanied episode's sweeping peroration. 

In between the solo violin concerto and the Brandenburg came Biondi's performance of the Sonata No. 2 in A minor for unaccompanied violin. Having heard this work a few times in the preliminary round of the recent International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, I was missing the brilliance of the modern violin and particularly the clarity and verve of the young contestants' string crossings in the second-movement fugue. Biondi's negotiation of that movement seemed effortful, though his experience with the expressive richness of the music came through.

Nonetheless, when he picked up the viola d'amore after intermission for Vivaldi's Concerto in D minor, RV393, he and his ensemble shone in a manner that soared above their Bach playing. Though I had reveled in the assertiveness of the "ripieno" (literally, "back bench") contingent in the Brandenburg, it was an extra treat to hear the ensemble in full force in the second half's two concertos, with a lute sparkling in the continuo part. 

The second one, which could be topped only by such an encore as the Presto from "Summer"  ('The Four Seasons"), brought the announced program to a close. Back on violin, Biondi was joined by a fellow violinist in the "concertino" part and by one of two cellists (the second didn't have the prominence the program book indicated). There was plenty of ordered tumult in the D major concerto's outer movements, the finale of which spurred a roaring ovation, surpassed by whoops of delight when Biondi announced the encore.

The work offered extensive opportunity to hear how well Europa Galante manages the strata of dynamic levels and the distribution of lyrical panache, both of which are more of a feature in Vivaldi than in Bach. Though there's little doubt of the ensemble's saturation in 18th-century sound and performance practice, it's no surprise that this band is most at home in Italy, particularly in capturing the flair of the prolific "Red Priest." Bach himself was not immune from borrowing some of that trans-alpine quality in his music, though he never traveled outside northern Germany. 

Thursday's program was certainly well-balanced, but the palm goes to the Vivaldi portion.

Thursday, October 6, 2022

Reed span: Ana Nelson builds 'Bridges' in works spotlighting alto sax and clarinet

 One of Ana Nelson's pieces on her debut disc, "Bridges," seems to illuminate the path she's followed, from

Ana Nelson imparts flow and nimbleness to both her instruments.

a student of classical music into a young professional with a jazz focus.

The disc's third track, "LCB," opens with an etude-like theme, simple but appealing, that flowers against a repeated-note pattern as the music becomes intense.

The prevalence of even notes throughout suggests study and a desire to build upon basics. Her turn from classical music to jazz seems to have been smooth (listen on her website to her pristine account of the second of Stravinsky's Three Pieces for Clarinet Solo). Her  legitimate tone on alto saxophone and clarinet alike is thoroughly evident in "Bridges." When she gets a little wild in her solos, the firmly centered tone persists.

In this disc of all originals, Nelson gives notice of her compositional skills as well. The pieces support her academic focus, as she is a doctoral candidate at Indiana University Jacobs School of Music in Bloomington, where she lives.

I was charmed immediately by the first track, "Wanderlust," music supporting the title with its restless rhythmic energy. Her smooth tone packs within it natural ebullience, and her sidemen on this tune and three others are apt for the occasion. They are bassist Brendan Keller, drummer Carter Pearson, and, most crucially, pianist Jamaal Baptiste.

Baptiste is the only one of this group to also have a valuable place in the finale, "Fruit of the Groove." Veterans of the stature of Jeremy Allen, bass, and Steve Houghton, drums, join him there, as the leader  brings in a second horn, tenor saxophonist Bill Nelson. Baptiste's best solo of the disc is on this track, I'm guessing because of the inspiring drive of Houghton, who's well-known in Indianapolis as a sideman of Steve Allee.

A shoulder-to-shoulder example of Nelson's musical range is her outing with string quartet only in "Let the Light In." It comes after a visit from her Brazilian muse titled "NelBap Choro," whose title is an abbreviated tribute to her musical partnership with Baptiste.

The most winning exhibition of Nelson's mellifluous tone, a constant on both her instruments,  is "Blue Flower," a contemplative piece with the string quartet in the background. The disc's other piece is "Waltz," which goes beyond the blandness of its title with excellent work from Keller and Pearson and some of Nelson's most inventive playing.


Sunday, October 2, 2022

Wishing for more jazz: The first part of the first day of the 2022 Indy Jazz Fest

It's a nice project that Rob Dixon has headed to make a partial survey, now recorded and  publicly available, to celebrate some of the current musical achievements of central Indiana.

"From the 317" helped introduce the Indy Jazz Fest Saturday afternoon at Garfield Park. The band was headed by saxophonist Dixon and guest star Derrick Gardner, a trumpeter of excellent stamina and a canny sense of just what to contribute when. The redoubtable drummer Richard "Sleepy" Floyd laid out the basic pulse and the energy associated with the heavy groove that's useful in both funk and hip-hop contexts. Brandon Meeks, an equally wide-ranging and inventive bassist, provided mainstay status in the rhythm section, which was filled out by keyboardists Reggie Bishop and Kevin Anker. Joining Gardner and Dixon in the front line was guitarist Charlie Ballantine. 

Rusty Redenbacher  (center) at the microphone, with star horns Gardner and Dixon to his right.

The guest stars given cameo status included prizewinning singer-songwriter Josh Kaufman and a brace of rappers whose performance benefited from a quick-to-the-point Gardner solo. Anker had a captivating solo as Bashiri Asad's vocal performance climaxed. The finale, the title piece of the new recording, was "Fresh Air." Its performance Saturday included pungent solos by Meeks and Ballantine.

But there were too many signs in the set that hip-hop culture is now considered part of jazz culture. I've been called a "gatekeeper" on cultural matters, which seems to me a label designed to make a critic feel uneasy about judging changes in any genre under discussion. I'm well aware that jazz history includes regrettable surges of "that's not jazz" cries from people whom history has judged simply wrong, whether the target was bebop or Ornette Coleman. 

The fact remains that Wynton Marsalis' dismissal resonates with me. He once told an interviewer that when any kind of performance has dispensed with melody, a pattern of sung or sounded pitches, it has sacrificed something essential to music. 

The verbal ingenuity of rappers may astonish, but if you can pick up only a few words at the pace of delivery, what's the point if there's no semblance of a tune to hang your hat on? There's thus more music in Screaming Jay Hawkins' "I Put a Spell on You" (to grab an example almost at random) than what hip-hop seems to offer. On the other hand, the wide-ranging critic John Rockwell has commendably suggested that music is best defined as "organized sound," so I won't conclude with a wave of the hand that rap, with its three-decade history of achievement and popularity, is "not music."

Vocalism that stems from pop performance, in both style and volume, also has taken root in jazz. Here I'm in a distinct minority, since the only jazz vocalists I prize are Jimmy Rushing and Louis Armstrong, with much of Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday (especially when Lester Young is on the date) in second place. Clearly this may be seen as unfair to jazz singers who happen to be still alive and active. 

But Terri Lyne Carrington, a drummer with an impressive resumé and distinctive credentials in music education, offered a set in which I had to focus hard on her special qualities while putting up with the thick instrumental and vocal context. She's a resourceful drummer who responds faithfully to her current band, as she has with some of the most eminent figures in jazz.

I did find something to appreciate in her female vocalist, whose name I didn't catch. Apart from her sincere attempt to involve the audience in a sing-along on "We Shall Overcome," the group finale, there was a plethora of vocal techniques and stylistic aplomb in her contributions. There were squawks, piercing high notes, and a wealth of idiosyncratic ornamentation. Some of it resembled the yodel-like innovations of Leon Thomas, who enjoyed a vogue in the 1960s and '70s. Approaching a cadence, she sometimes sang her version of the trillo caprino, a bleating sound of staccato repetitions of the same note best known to another type of music lover from the operas of Claudio Monteverdi.

If one is reminded of familiar features in music one isn't sympathetic to, it's helpful to remember the composer Edgard Varese's complaint that people tend to listen with their memories rather than their ears. But I'm always looking for a way I know into unfamiliar music; otherwise I get worried that my sensitivity may be deadening.

It was clear when Norman Brown took the stage that much of the audience was more in tune with him than I.  They knew his songs. They were singing along with him and his vocalists. The shock of recognition seemed to reverberate around the growing audience at MacAllister Amphitheater.

He's got a busy, evocative guitar style that straddles the border between acoustic and electric. In "After the Storm," a song from 1994, his harmonies and sound brought to mind attractive qualities in the playing of Bola Sete, a Brazilian guitarist active in the  '60s. The twangy soul vibe of Brown's playing elsewhere folded in reggae-like episodes and country guitar. But when you draw back to take the larger view, what comes across is a pop star with some jazz chops to display, fronting an r&b (or "urban contemporary") band.

All sorts of crossover have long been practiced at jazz festivals ever since George Wein invited Chuck Berry to entertain at the Newport Jazz Festival in the 1950s. You can see the bemusement of Jack Teagarden among jazz colleagues on the same stage in "Jazz on a Summer's Day." So there's nothing severely unorthodox about the tack the Indy Jazz Fest has taken, though the course needs to be corrected. As Brown's set neared the end, I was sure it was time to leave.

[Photo by Rob Ambrose]


Down home with the Michael Kaeshammer piano trio in Vancouver

Indianapolis jazz fans who may remember long-ago visits by Astral Project  to the Jazz Kitchen know the

Kaeshammer's rootsy piano is well-known in Canada.

kind of groove to expect from drummer Johnny Vidacovich and his irrepressibly bouncy chat with the audience. A little bit of the talk and a lot of the groove help create the relaxed atmosphere of "The Warehouse Sessions," a new recording (Linus Entertainment) under the direction of Michael Kaeshammer, an eminent member of the Canadian jazz community.

Kaeshammer's boogie-woogie-informed style at the piano leads the way in perfect rapport with Vidacovich and the steady pulse of bassist David Piltch through nine tunes. They are all likely to make instant connections with listeners who may want a respite from complexity in the enduring trio format of piano-bass-drums.

They get down to hard-digging relatability with "You Got It in Your Soulness," a piece from Les McCann's 1969 hit album "Swiss Movement." Kaeshammer's decorative elements are well placed. Anything fancy in his playing avoids knottiness: there's a chorus with trills in the right hand, octaves in the left. It's all that's needed when it comes to thickening the texture. 

The trio supposedly decided the set list on the fly, moving from one piece to the next and settling for first takes in a Vancouver warehouse/recording studio. The recording's title oddly uses the plural, but this seems to be one session, not more. The tradition is always at hand, so it's on to Leroy Carr's "How Long Blues," then "Down by the Riverside." Vidacovich's "second-line" drumming, with its march-tempo snare-drum emphasis, is essential to the idiom.

But the real treasure of the recording is the trio's journey through "Caravan," a classic from the Duke Ellington catalogue and usually heard from a larger ensemble. It's a sign of the compatibility  of this band that what must have been a spontaneous arrangement seems so well planned. The drums are alone at the start, and at length Vidacovich shows how much variety his style can embrace. The piano takes off after stating the melody in the tenor range unelaborated. Eventually, the right hand turns flamboyant, but never noisy. In a tasty bass solo against snares and cymbals and a few piano chords,  Piltch's colleagues never crowd him. The ending is modestly laid out, as if this subtle caravan is simply fading across the desert sands. 

Kaeshammer is witty in "Bourbon Street Parade," a performance led off (presumably) by Vidacovich's direction "Chop, chop — I got the top." This is clearly not a group focused on originals, but thoroughly at home in what has gone before them. Ornette Coleman's early "Ramblin'" proceeds almost more blithely than the original, a classic that has always indicated how rudimentary the Fort Worth saxophonist considered his music to be.

The dominant piano in Horace Silver's "The Preacher" ends "The Warehouse Sessions" where it should, with Kaeshammer folding his down-home virtuosity into what seems to be a naturally laid-back quality. This record is all the more rewarding for not being ambitious, just a kind of comfort food that's free of excessive processing.

Saturday, October 1, 2022

For 'Rent,' before 'Rent': Phoenix Theatre opens season with 'Tick, Tick..BOOM!

You may expect to have  "Seasons of Love" as a daylong ear worm if you catch "Tick, Tick...Boom!" at Phoenix Theatre before the end of the month.

The hit song from "Rent," the musical through which Jonathan Larson achieved wide fame, much of it posthumous, has a precursor phrase or two in the earlier show. Semi-autobiographical to a wrenching degree, the '"Rent" predecessor opens the Phoenix season in a well-designed production with a splendidly compatible three-person cast under the direction of Emily Ristine Holloway.

"Seasons of Love" is of course rooted in our perceptions of time— how we mark it, how we attempt to speed it up or slow it down, and just what we make of certain milestones. Time is of the essence, a capacity audience was reminded on opening night Friday.

Jon, from whose viewpoint the story of "Tick" is told, dreads his 30th birthday, which he is about to reach without fulfilling a self-imposed goal of success in musical theater. (The Phoenix itself is at the youth-clinging age of 39, a signature gag of the almost forgotten comedian Jack Benny.)

The protagonist's temporal anxiety would seem kind of jejune if the focus were not a celebrated creative artist whose life was cut off by a possibly misdiagnosed heart condition when he was just 35.  Larson shares that terminus with a certified genius, one who benefited from a much earlier start, embossed with the prodigy label: W.A. Mozart. 

Gabriela Gomez, Eddie Dean, and Patrick Dinnsen in the comic song "Sugar."

The fair seed time of Larson's soul was much more conflicted, as "Tick, Tick" suggests. Jon deals with an elusive agent, a hard-won workshop opportunity that seems to go nowhere, his barely hidden jealousy of a best friend (an ex-actor moving up in the corporate world), and a dancer girlfriend determined to escape the grimy pressure cooker of New York City. The year is 1990, stamped in song by  "30/90," which is reprised in the one-act show just before the company wraps things up with the greeting-card sentiments of "Louder Than Words."

Perched high toward the back of Zac Hunter's sturdy, versatile set, an adept four-piece band accompanies the songs flawlessly. Instruments and voices are precisely balanced, with few exceptions. Pop balladry and punchy rock ebullience set the parameters of the musical style. 

Larson was so steeped in the pop culture of his brief time that parody, inadvertent or otherwise, isn't  hard to detect. "Come to Your Senses," a showcase for a singer Jon is smitten with in the workshop for his fledgling show "Superbia," has the mounting anthemic  quality and rising key changes of  "A Song That Goes Like This" from "Spamalot" (2004). Obviously, Larson saw the possibilities for mocking such numbers long before Eric Idle put a fool's cap on them.

The song is among the show's conspicuous solo displays. This one is for Gabriela Gomez, who as the temptress Karessa also does several other brief turns amid her main role as Susan, Jon's restless girlfriend. Best friend Michael has a stirring showcase with "No More," and it is capably brought off by Eddie Dean, who also has some comic cameos as other people in Jon's orbit. As Jon, Patrick Dinnsen is prominent throughout in presenting the Larson figure in speech and song. All three display smoothly integrated vocal ranges and emotional flexibility.  When their voices combine, they do so seamlessly (credit to music director Teneh Karimu). they show satirical pizazz in "Sunday," a song skewering the brunch customers who frequent the diner where Jon works.

I like that there's a history of actors of color in the role of Michael. There's something a little stifling about the show insofar as it seems to privilege Youthful White Angst and seeks to make us care about one of countless YWA sufferers with show-biz ambitions. Granted, this one turned out to be a special case, even if he was from White Plains. But his best friend is black, at least for this show's purposes. I grew up in a Michigan township named Grand Blanc, so my background too echoes the various resonance of whiteness.

Michael may have his doubts about whether the switch to the well-heeled rat race was worth it, and he carries another burden that we learn about late in the show. But it's refreshing that he has retrained his talent and intelligence toward higher professional status than a struggling theater professional usually enjoys. Dean's opening-night performance — its dignity, appeal, and pathos — blended with the hopes and setbacks portrayed by Dinnsen and Gomez as Jon and Susan.

The details are well-managed in this production, down to Katie Phelan Mayfield's projection design. It's all lively and ingratiating, but it's also about finishing the hat, in the immortal phrase of Jon's (and Larson's) idol, Stephen Sondheim —"how you watch the rest of the world from a window while you finish the hat."

[Credit: Ghostlight Photography]