Sunday, November 27, 2022

-The Rise and Fall of Holly Fudge' teaches that sweets to the sweet are always in season

 A discarded euphemism of disappointment and annoyed surprise, once heard among old folks, runs: "Oh fudge!" 

Mother-daughter bond renewed across identity issues.

That usage could serve as a mantra for Phoenix Theatre's new show, "The Rise and Fall of Holly Fudge." Set in 2020, it's a holiday contraption that vibrates against the rumble of the pandemic and social upheaval, as well as evolving notions of personal identity and its right to thrive.

The old-fashioned expletive has the right muttered tones of evasion with which the settled older generation confronts change. Carol, the baby-boomer lead character in Trista Baldwin's contemporary Christmas comedy, finds it necessary to hold on to the high local reputation of the confection she calls "Holly Fudge." Her spacious living room is decorated to the nines for the season, from snow globes to a dazzling tree (upstage center in Lyndsey Lyddan's set for the Phoenix production).

The candy's blue-ribbon status must be maintained as Carol gets ready for a rare visit from her daughter, after whom she's named the fudge. That turns out to be an issue for Holly, who has moved away from her East Coast hometown to Seattle. The city is associated in her mother's mind with civil unrest in the aftermath of the George Floyd killing and the growth of Black Lives Matter. 

The ensuing nationwide controversy has even staked out a spot across the street, drawing a small group of daily demonstrators. That's the only context Carol has to put on her daughter's current identity; communication between the two is freighted with the difficulty of her husband's abandonment of the family long ago. This reunion's big surprise is the show's '"guess-who's-coming-to-dinner" twist, as Holly arrives with Jordan, her female lover, a coming-out test of her mother's tolerance. To top it off, Carol's good friend and neighbor Chris seems to be launching a rivalry in the homemade Christmas sweets department. Oh fudge, indeed!

Daniella Wheelock directs the Phoenix production with an  evident surplus of whole-hearted energy, summed up in a cast led by Milicent Wright as Carol, reprising her role in the original production (Merrimack Repertory Theatre, Lowell, Massachusetts). Wright's well-known range of overflowing emotion, ranging from joy through confusion into anger and sadness, is applied well to this role. Her opening-night performance Saturday set a tone poised with comical friction against the characters played by Terra McFarland (Holly), Jaddy Ciucci (Jordan) and Emily Ristine (Chris).

Holly seemed underplayed in the first act, but that may have been one plausible way to interpret the daughter's deep uncertainty as to the best way to convey her new life and set the relationship with her mother on a new footing. After intermission, McFarland's performance grew in definition as both lover and daughter.

Ciucci projected a tempered brashness, her Jordan working to help Holly put across the identity she is

Yule-minded Mom adjusts to daughter's relationship.

eager to have Carol accept and embrace. Obstacles to that goal are formidable, and the lovers split temporarily, with Jordan and Chris, who has quarreled with the jealous Carol over holiday sweets, in exile outside, sharing a joint. That's the show's funniest scene, as the two women bond while getting high and wrestling emotionally with both seasonal tradition and damaged personal relationships. Ristine in particular ascends to the heights of ridiculous here.

There's an earlier scene, even more explosive, which ends the first act. The playwright indulges her interest in anarchic situation comedy with a food fight between Carol and Chris involving hurled and smeared fudge. We are in the tradition of untenable conflict turning into messy slapstick, summed up 70 years ago on TV by Lucy and Ethel in the candy factory on "I Love Lucy."

The sit-com comparison brings up a certain mechanical quality to entrances and exits in the script. Scenes sweep into view or fade quickly in the manner of television quick cuts. It's obvious that the rhythms of screen comedy were a huge influence in the way the playwright tells her story.

I found a few problems with the pace and technical adroitness of the show, some of which are not the playwright's fault. Why does Carol fling open the front door a few moments before Jordan and Holly appear? Is she clairvoyant? Why has Holly, who designs jewelry on the side, traveled home wearing severely distressed jeans? (Maybe noticing that contrast indicates some generational cluelessness on my part.) And then, though she's on vacation from her reporting job, at one point she goes across the street inappropriately dressed to interview the demonstrators: just irrepressible curiosity applied off-duty? 

Why do snowballs hitting the house sound like cannon shots? The sound would already be unnerving to Carol at a more plausible volume. At the other extreme, the portable music that Carol asks Holly to turn down can hardly be heard. That seems extremely fussy even for a mother as on-edge as Carol.

Finally, and I must tread softly here: Though the script suggests that Carol and Chris are roughly contemporaries, thus indicating that both their friendship and their rivalry lie within a shared peer group, Chris looks significantly younger than Carol. The Zoom fitness class that Chris leads and Carol attempts to follow is a funny scene that may be intended to signal an age difference, But it can also be explained by the fact that fitness is Chris's thing, while Carol is a novice when it comes to vigorous exercise. OK: I'm now gingerly putting that present back under the tree.

"The Rise and Fall of Holly Fudge" has many moments as dazzling and beguiling as the delight of opening a box full of gift candy. It is overall cheerful, sometimes uproariously so, despite the serious conflicts that crop up. It ends (this can hardly be a spoiler, given the season) on a note of reconciliation, even uplift. But it's also chock full of social and cultural commentary (oh, Jordan is Jewish, by the way) and the kind of pervasive busyness that we are all subject to around the holidays. 

Oh fudge! Just help yourself. 

[Photos by IndyGhostLight]



Monday, November 21, 2022

Terell Stafford at the Jazz Kitchen: Veteran trumpet maestro sits in with Indianapolis Jazz Collective

Terell Stafford and Indianapolis Jazz Collective in action

The Indianapolis Jazz Collective, an all-star local band linked to and continually inspiring support by

the Indianapolis Jazz Foundation, has a firm track record of working well with guest musicians. That tradition expanded with distinction Sunday night at the Jazz Kitchen, with trumpeter Terell Stafford filling out the front line along with IJF artistic and education director Rob Dixon on tenor sax.

The rhythm section was no slouch in imparting star quality: Steve Allee, piano; Nick Tucker, bass; Kenny Phelps, drums. The first set lit the kindling with "Time to Let Go," a Stafford original and the title piece on his recorded debut as a leader. That was in 1995, and since then Stafford has added distinction to his resume as an educator. He directs jazz studies at Temple University in Philadelphia, whose stature in the music's history he's boosted through the Philadelphia Jazz Orchestra, founded in 2013.

Stafford's long history as a sideman comes through even when he's the main attraction. Throughout the set, he was  unfailingly collegial, smiling approvingly at others' solo highlights and applauding them as he cradled his trumpet. 

With the horn to his lips, he blazes up frequently, but without promiscuous stabbing toward inevitably cracked tones in the high register. He flecks his solos with humorous touches: half-valving and growling in the ancient  tradition of Rex Stewart, but somewhat less obvious about it than the inimitable Clark Terry. His cheeks puff out in the Dizzy Gillespie manner, but unlike that bop icon, he saves his sense of humor for his playing, and deploys it scrupulously. 

Terell Stafford lent brilliance here.

Dixon gave him a notable ballad feature, on "Old Folks," then sat out. The trumpeter's sweet account built in a great arc through his solo, with a blue tinge coloring it at length. Stafford's long solo cadenza at the end had moments of fun that drew laughter from the capacity audience. 

The saxophonist introduced "One Hundred," a tune he wrote that features a strong back beat and was launched by a Phelps solo, by noting the planned IJF centennial celebrations in honor of Indianapolis native Wes Montgomery next year. Then Dixon admitted it was a stretch to link that event to that piece.

 The commentary was a bit of a puzzle, as was his digression into New York's Village Vanguard, where Stafford plays in the traditional Monday night big band. No, the fabled club is not also celebrating its hundredth birthday next year, as near as I can determine: It's 87 years old, which is jaw-dropping enough for a jazz nightspot. I'll be grateful if I can acknowledge the actual VV centennial milestone in 2035. (I was born a few miles to the north just a decade into the Vanguard's history.)

Allee's right hand took flight in his solo on Stafford's "Favor." After the band played the out-chorus,  Tucker contributed his most impressive solo of the set before the band set a calming seal upon the piece. As good as Allee's comping is, I sort of missed touches  of the Hammond B-3 in Mike Clark's "Lucky No. 7," though I have no idea if organ was called for in the original. The pianist's solo proved fully adequate to the piece, however, which evoked the classic Blue Note era and trumpeters like Lee Morgan. Whatever the music's nods to tradition, Stafford inspired the band to put its personal stamp on it and display the enduring viability of small-group acoustic jazz as 2022 wanes. 

[Group photo from Sunday performance by Rob Ambrose]


Sunday, November 20, 2022

Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra offers sesquicentennial tribute to Vaughan Williams

With one of England's greatest composers being widely celebrated this year on his 150th birth anniversary, the

Soloists Gerber, Zuber, and Muston for Martin's Petite Symphonie Concertante

Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra  on Saturday night presented a program with different aspects of the composer represented in both halves.

Ralph Vaughan Williams' distinctiveness as a rare English master first became apparent in 1910 with Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, and his interest in the past of English music also encompassed vernacular styles, which "The Running Set" represented right after intermission.

The latter piece, a straightforward evocation of folk-dance tunes, was a pleasurable rouser in the bright, balanced acoustics of the Schrott Center for the Arts at Butler University. It brought the excellent ICO winds into play for the first time in the concert. Their role was mainly filling out the tone colors of music not designed for individuation. That prismatic focus was to come in the concert finale, Joseph Haydn's Symphony No. 99 in E-flat major.

Part of virtually the greatest impresario triumph in music history, this symphony was one of a dozen commissioned by J.P. Salomon to be introduced by the Austrian composer in his London sojourn of 1794 and 1795. Music director Matthew Kraemer led a sparkling account of No. 99. Only the violins' entrance in the Vivace assai after the first movement's poised introduction was a shade untidy. 

The work's most notable feature is the timbral variety the wind  instruments lend to the score. Haydn, entering old age according to the norm of his time, was feeling his oats with Salomon's multifaceted assignment. In this work, the innovation in orchestral layout is the latecomer clarinet, added to the wind ensemble of flute, oboe, bassoon, horn, and trumpet. Timpani give a sense of occasion to the piece.

But the work stands out even among the excellent set of London symphonies for its wit and its well-integrated collection of surprises. The finale is continually amazing, using all of Haydn's mature skills in counterpoint, suspense, healthy buoyancy and integration of all materials. The third-movement Menuetto is a gem  of his sensitivity to tone color.

Especially in the last movement, wind instruments poke through delightfully, just as children may contribute germanely and precociously to lively adult conversations around this week's Thanksgiving tables (with luck!).

At its climax, Haydn's finale can bear comparison with its much-admired counterpart in Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony. The strands subject to Haydn's weaving skills are shorter than his younger contemporary's, and thus the complexity is less advanced. But the compositional sophistication in the adolescence of the symphonic form is certainly on the same exalted level.

In the first half, the marquee event was a rare performance of "Petite Symphonie Concertante" by the 20th-century Swiss composer Frank Martin. It's probably not often a conductor can put onstage musicians who are adept concerto partners on the harp, the harpsichord, and the piano. Kraemer selected ICO member Wendy Muston, frequent ICO collaborator Thomas Gerber, and American Pianists Association laureate Eric Zuber, respectively. They were an exemplary team and conscientious interpreters of their unique roles.

In three movements, with a particularly detailed and sensitive Adagio treating the soloists in isolation, Martin displays his idiosyncratic approach to atonal composition. It's ingratiating, never thorny, yet naturally piquant. In this performance, the solo  instruments were placed wisely to keep balances clear; I felt fortunate to be sitting closest to Gerber among the three, so that the harpsichord's less penetrating quality was not shadowed by his fellow soloists or the orchestra. I'm guessing there was next to nothing off-balance from other perspectives in this responsive hall. 

While probably there are few hungering for other triple concertos with such a set-up, it's easy to be grateful for this one, thanks to Saturday's performance.

The main Vaughan Williams salute was the imperishable Tallis Fantasia. The sacred origin of its theme pervaded the composer's detailed treatment of it for string ensemble. The contrast of textures stood out in the Schrott's duly celebrated environment. The string quartet to which  the composer gives judicious emphasis highlighted the richness of the ensemble sonority. The pacing that Kremer set blended warmth and dignity — qualities that showed Vaughan Williams at his best in the piece's blossoming climax.

Thursday, November 17, 2022

Prismatic Americanism: As Ensemble Music's guest, Aeolus Quartet explores what we are

With Dvorak's last quartet as an anchor, both for its foreign perspective and its nostalgia for old, familiar

Aeolus takes its name from the Greek god of winds.

milieus, the Aeolus String Quartet made its first local appearance Wednesday night at the Indiana History Center. "Inspired by America" was the concert's title.

As the second group on Ensemble Music Society's current season, Aeolus led up to the Bohemian master's String Quartet in G major, op.106, with three modern works by American composers — George Walker, Jessie Montgomery, and Ben Johnston.

The prominent African-American Walker wrote a piece that became known as "Lyric for Strings" in its string orchestra version. As the second movement of his first string quartet, it sounds very much like apprentice work. The basic appeal of the material has allowed the piece to succeed, maybe not on the transcendent level of Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings" (similarly lifted from an early string-quartet original), but enough to keep Walker's name before the public.

It was tucked in between more interesting pieces. Montgomery's "Strum" is a well-integrated tribute to vernacular string styles: incisive bowing, tight and intelligible harmonies, and of course the recurrent pizzicato articulation signaled by the work's title. The musicians — violinists Nicholas Tavani and Rachel Shapiro, violist Caitlin Lynch, and cellist Jia Kim — displayed the same coordinated bounce, phrase after phrase, that was evident from when they first sprang onstage all smiles.

"Just intonation" is the key to understanding the sound of Johnston's String Quartet No. 4 ("Amazing Grace"), but it has a freshness of invention that goes beyond both the familiar hymn on which it is based and the tuning system that Johnston uses, following a career-long interest in microtones. The instruments are tuned to represent the pure spacing of pitch, without the compromises that blur the outlines between pitch relationships so that all tonalities can be smoothly negotiated and no intervals are jarring.

The work placed a premium on the quartet's virtuosity. The Aeolus lived up to its name insofar as each player embodied a "wind" from one of the four compass directions. The independence of each was expressed in rhythm as well as pitch. Yet collegial warmth seemed to emerge strongly as the music got complicated. That led to the climactic reemergence of "Amazing Grace" as a logical consequence of the preceding tumult, not a wrenching re-imposition of the tune. Johnston's innovative procedures never seemed to interfere with communication of a beloved melody transformed.

After intermission came the piece that suggests "inspired by America" most crucially. Dvorak's American period brought forth the blend of homesickness and welcoming encounter most famously represented by the "New World" Symphony. His "American" Quartet is well-known, but the two final quartets (opp. 105 and 106) are thoroughly a product of his resettled, post-American life, which ended within a decade of his return to Prague.

The G major quartet, lavish in its development of rich materials and emotionally intricate, drew an intense, stimulating performance from the Aeolus.  

Especially impressive was the control displayed in the second movement, giving the slow, and slowly changing, music plenty of room to breathe. The emotional range is immense, and was fully explored in this performance. The motoric drive of the finale never threw the collective focus out of alignment. It was no wonder that in their final curtain call, the musicians simply waved goodbye. It was the friendliest refusal to play an encore, and it's likely nobody minded.


Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Rachel Barton Pine spotlights black composers' violin concertos

Rachel Barton Pine, a protean concert violinist with a compelling discography on Cedille Records, has

Rachel Barton Pine champions black composers.

done much more than give a nod to diversity in classical music. In addition to expanding her repertoire to bring black composers to the public, she set up a project through her foundation to redress the neglect of their music. That was more than 20 years ago, so she can't be accused of jumping on a bandwagon.

Her latest investment as recording artist in this music is "Violin Concertos by Black Composers Through the Centuries" (Cedille). Despite its bland academic title, the disc makes an exciting case for music  by composers whose reputations are only recently gaining ground.

Jose White Lafitte (1836-1918)
Rooted in the emergence of cultivated music from the salon and court into the public concert hall, the work of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, enjoyed a vogue briefly in the 18th century, keyed to its composer's fame as both virtuoso musician and fencer. His Violin Concerto in A major, op. 5, no. 2 leads off this disc, with polished accompaniment from the Encore Chamber Orchestra, a Chicago-based youth ensemble conducted by Daniel Hege. 

After a forceful, long orchestra tutti, the soloist enters with decorative, yet purposeful material. The solo part demands deftness from the soloist. Pine compares its requirements to Saint-Georges' esteemed accomplishments with the sword. The Largo second movement has a relaxed barcarolle-like flow and tempo; there's nothing fancy in the cadenza, which is fitting. The Rondeau third movement proceeds with the dash and elan reminiscent of a Vivaldi finale.

For melodic charm, the better of the three-movement concertos here is by Jose White, whose Afro-Cuban heritage is less explicitly at play in the music than the influence of his time in France. I've known this piece for a few decades through Columbia's Black Composer Series, for which it was recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra (Paul Freeman conducting) with Aaron Rosand (1927-2019) in the solo role. A distinguished exponent of the Romantic repertoire, Rosand also shares with Pine a metropolitan Chicago origin (he in Hammond, Indiana; she in Chicago).

The old recording benefits, of course, from a more established and expert accompaniment. Yet I would place Pine's reading of the solo part on the same high level of expressive understanding and technical aplomb as Rosand's. To my ears, she plays it as if she believes in it more than Rosand seems to have, though his tossed-off manner has a certain charm. The Cedille recording quality is better, too.

Free of empty display, the solo part travels readily over the instrument's whole range, requiring not only agility but tonal security. Her low-register tone in the first movement's secondary theme is superb. After the tender Adagio, fused with the first movement, a rondo finale blessed by more good melody and dazzling virtuosity wraps things up.

The disc is filled out by two one-movement pieces, the Romance in G major by the Anglo-African Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, and Violin Concerto No. 2 by the currently fashionable Florence Price. The solo violin inserts itself gently into Coleridge-Taylor's understated introduction. The Romance's strong middle section eventually yields to a sugary concluding episode.  The unpretentious connotations of the "romance" label help the piece come across.

Lots of orchestral variety is thrown into the orchestral introduction to Price's concerto. In contrast with the other three works on Pine's disc, the accompaniment here is by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, conducted by Jonathon Heyward. 

Immediately Price displays her American assertiveness — an understandable desire for music-lovers to take notice. Splashes of celesta among the brass and cymbals arrest the attention, as they do again at the piece's climax, crowned by a dreamy coda nailed down by forceful chords. The restless, street-wise quality may owe something to Gershwin. 

Pine is thoroughly conversant with the score's recurrent urgency, even though the violin's entrance and much of its subsequent manner are playful and slightly bluesy, another approach to making a favorable impression on her compatriots. That's helped give her music currency nearly 70 years after her death.

Monday, November 14, 2022

Schubert at the summit: Piano-violin-cello trios get peak performances at the Palladium

Sunday's concert in the outsized magnificence of Carmel's Palladium needs no special pleading. There's an aura around Franz Schubert's chamber music that seems unlikely ever to fade. And the fact that the

Wu Han and David Finckel have a decades-old partnerhsip

performers of the two piano trios yesterday are illustrious in their fields, separately and together, promised great things.

Commentary on this repertoire tends toward gushing enthusiasm. Of such works, the English critic William Mann wrote: "They are music to be loved, and they inspire an affection that in human affairs we accord to our closest relations and to those friends from whose company we are never long absent."

So, if you weren't there Sunday evening at the Center for the Performing Arts, you'll have to be content with hugging those near and dear to you, even virtually. And if you were, you probably found your beloveds all the more huggable after hearing three master instrumentalists play the Trio in B-flat, op. 99, and the Trio in E-flat, op. 100. As pianist Wu Han pointed out in oral program notes at the start, they are the products of Schubert's astonishing, productive twilight before his early death at 31, 194 years ago this month.

Benjamin Beilman is well-known here. 

Then she was joined onstage by cellist David Finckel, her husband and partner in a variety of artistic ventures, and violinist Benjamin Beilman, who is known to local audiences for his distinction as bronze medalist in the 2010 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis and subsequent concert appearances with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center (2014) and as guest soloist with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra (2018 and 2021) and the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra (2016).

The two works are contrasted inherently by an emotional palette that Wu Han summed up as "joyful" (op. 99) and  "declaration" (op. 100). Immediately the technical aplomb and mutual fellow-feeling of this ensemble came into play. Never forcing the tone or permitting gentler episodes to turn wispy, the string players seemed to revel in the pristine acoustical environment, and the flowing yet continually demanding writing for piano rolled out naturally from the keyboard.

Schubert's gifts as a melodist, perhaps supreme in the canon, were always presented in a manner that confirmed the complementary layout of both pieces. The love song introduced by the cello in op. 99's Andante un poco mosso was confirmed later on by the violin. As elaborate as Schubert becomes in his typically luxuriant workmanship, this trio was ready to address it on common ground. 

In op. 100, where Schumann's enduring praise for his predecessor's  "heavenly lengths" comes to mind in the finale, the audience was surely more inclined to feel the heavenly quality than the length. The relentless tapestry in the piano part recalls the famously thorny accompaniment to the song "Der Erlk├Ânig," a work further along the dark end of the spectrum than this trio. That solemn mood is definitively established by the tune the cello introduces in the second movement to the funeral-march beat of the other two players. When that melody recurs in the finale, it's obvious the mortally ill composer was gazing into the valley of the shadow of death.

Elsewhere, even in this music focused on declaration, changes of mood typical of the composer were adroitly managed, especially in the first movement. A premium is put upon articulation throughout both works, and here Wu Han, Finckel and Beilman were unfailingly alert and expressive. Even with pauses and frequent staccato, the crisp rhythmic profile never became choppy. Melody and mood remained uppermost.

In sesquicentennial observances in Detroit of Schubert's death in 1978, New Yorker critic Andrew Porter summed up the degree to which scholars had shed light on the mystery of the composer's personal life. Most of the clarity, Porter demonstrated, corrected the old image of Schubert as a feckless amateur of great talent and productivity, scrawling songs on napkins, whose professional seriousness had to be called into question. 

Up to the present time, as the newer image becomes established, Schubert's life and work are a parable of the tenuousness of a creative artist's life. The puzzles of making a public impact have existed from that day to this, with the permanent decline of aristocratic patronage and today's vagaries of digitized publicity. 

No composer has established a posthumous niche more definitively than Schubert, and performances like this one add luster to his immortality. Oh, and they also spread the love, as William Mann observed.

Saturday, November 12, 2022

With a hometown soprano in the title role, Indianapolis Opera triumphs in 'Tosca'

Significant scenes from Indianapolis Opera's "Tosca"

European power politics from more than two centuries ago don't bulk large in modern consciousness, but a classic juxtaposition of tyrannical power versus artistic and personal freedom will always hold the stage in the form of Giacomo Puccini's "Tosca."

The opera opened Indianapolis Opera's 2022-23 season Friday night at the Booth Tarkington Theater in Carmel's Center for the Performing Arts. Two performances remain: 7:30 p.m. today and 3 p.m. Sunday.

Driving three audiences toward sell-out status at the 500-seat Tarkington is the presence of renowned local soprano Angela Brown as Floria Tosca. A famous singer portraying a famous singer is virtually guaranteed to get extraordinary attention. Tosca has star quality in circa-1800 Rome, and her story, transferred from a late-19th-century French drama to operatic splendor, carries weight displaying the difficulty of keeping celebrity status out of political matters. Even today, it's fashionable to deplore such an intersection in some quarters, but it can be nearly unavoidable. Celebrities in any milieu are public figures, and are hardly to be enjoined from political expression or participation.

In Tosca's case, her intense love for a politically suspect painter, Mario Cavaradossi, leads her into an ultimately vain effort to save him from the ruthlessness of the Roman police chief, Baron Scarpia. Upon this sturdy three-legged stool of vivid characters the opera rests. It proved more than sturdy on opening night: it was splendid.

As Cavaradossi, Gregory Turay displayed vocal and acting prowess as both lover and fighter. There were places where his commendable dulcet tones could have been brought more into play, as they were in the third act. Yet his control and ardor in the work's first aria, "Recondita armonia," succeeded in lifting up the power of art, to which Tosca lends her support, more plaintively, when she sums up her purpose in life later in "Vissi d'arte." With Alfred Savia conducting, the coordination seemed pretty well-honed throughout, and the slightly underpowered orchestra radiated warmth and sounded sufficient despite the reduced ensemble size.

"Vissi d'arte," which Brown sang gloriously, is the lyrical zenith of the second act, upon which director James Marvel lavishes most of his praise for "Tosca" in his program note. His attention bore fruit on opening night. The way he moved Tosca and Scarpia around the set, which suggested lavishness without quite achieving it, was imaginative and sometimes surprising. 

The surprise was centered on how he had Andrew Potter, a physically and vocally imposing Scarpia, occasionally collapse on the couch the police chief has clearly eyed as the place where he would consummate his lust for the singer. This was a man whose power is on the verge of being undone by his sensuality. If sinking onto the chaise represented a pause in the chase, the message was that the man's predatory cruelty arises out of weakness. Scarpia is also subject to swooning over perfumes, and the related refinement of taste is strongly implied. His dress-up garb for seduction (part of a magnificent wardrobe in toto designed by Susan Memmott Allred for Utah Opera and lent to this company) likewise conveyed the character's customary focus on taste to the exclusion of decency.

Raw grappling cannot be avoided, of course, since Tosca is quite resistant. Brown and Potter engaged in it with believable vigor. His toying with a dagger as the act opens foretells the use to which it will be put to dispatch him. In a more remote foreshadowing, the jealous Tosca waves a paintbrush pointedly at her lover in Act 1 as she insists that Cavaradossi darken the eyes of the portrait he's working on so they look more like her own. 

The pace of the final moments of Act 2 was superb, with Tosca's departure from Scarpia's apartment, voiceless aside from her ringing spoken line "and to think that he terrorized all Rome." As the nervous assassin's religiosity re-emerges, in this production she places candles on either side of his legs, not his head. I don't see a significance in that departure from the libretto, but maybe it has a meaning I haven't fathomed. I bring it up here only because every detail  of Marvel's direction seems purposeful and well-thought-out.

The brief but telling choruses, especially at the end of the first act, had the spine-tingling impact they need, as Scarpia roars that he has forgotten God. Potter's stentorian bass cut through the tumult. Earlier, the playfulness of the choirboys, the Sacristan (comical, but not overplayed, by Rick Purvis) and others is stunningly interrupted by the police chief's entrance, as the search for the escaped prisoner Angelotti (furtive and desperate in Austin Sieber's effective portrayal) gathers steam. That's when the solidity of the production, thanks to the three principals, was confirmed and, from then on, sustained.

Framing other technical aspects under Eric Matters' design, Valeriya Nedvig's sets were effective when they sketched in enough of the three architecturally important settings to help guide the drama. Tilman Piedmont's lighting attained particular stature when the spotlight turned on Tosca for "Vissi d'arte," and the lights dimmed elsewhere to emphasize the singer's lonely meditation on her plight. On the other hand, several color changes in the cloudy nighttime sky of the final act were distracting, an unnecessary touch of Expressionism.

The tension around Cavaradossi's scheduled execution and the affectionate interplay between the lovers, so soon to give way to tragedy, were aptly moving. Only Tosca's plunge off the parapet to her death looked more cautious than climactic. But you can't risk injury to your diva by privileging a plausible leap over everything else. And this production wonderfully fulfills that "everything else."

Joseph Kerman's dismissive phrase about "Tosca" — "that shabby little shocker" — is the most cited quotation from his otherwise valuable study "Opera as Drama." The worst thing about that snipe is that Puccini's opera is in no way shabby, and the Indianapolis Opera production demonstrates just how masterly and well-shaped "Tosca" really is.

[Photo collage by Denis Ryan Kelly Jr.]


Friday, November 11, 2022

Storm warnings: 'Natural Shocks' juxtaposes two types of very bad weather

Sometimes the high pertinence of the  director's program notes gets in the way of how a play feels as it goes along in front of you. Clearly, "Natural Shocks" is "about" domestic violence and gun carnage, as Southbank Theatre Company's artistic director Marcia Eppich-Harris and production director Eric Bryant point out in print.

But as Lauren Gunderson's one-act, one-actor drama unfolded on opening night Thursday at Fonseca Theatre, I was caught up in both the literal and metaphorical significance of the approaching tornado that has caused Angela, an insurance agent of lofty accomplishment and, in her private life, an abused spouse, to shut herself away in her home basement. 

Angela reenacts long-ago dialogue with her controlling mother.

Carrie Ann Schlatter, as I've noted in past reviews, conveys in every role a sympathetic connection to audiences, no matter how odd the character she portrays. The oddness is often a crucial part of that rapport. It may even be heroic, as it is in the pioneering figure of Henrietta Leavitt, the astronomer she played in another company's stunning debut, "Silent Sky."

Here she handles the playwright's style of addressing the audience through what seems to be an uninterrupted soliloquy. The drama, to a large extent, is between Angela and spectators who are not there in the basement with her, but Southbank patrons looking on. 

Early in the show, Angela admits an affinity for lying, because "lying makes things easier." We gradually find out even that is a lie and that lying often makes things harder. But Angela's truth emerges— painfully through an appalling narrative about her marriage in which she self-corrects the image she has initially projected. 

Still, we are meant to believe that she actually loves her work, that she is emotionally as well as intellectually invested in her insurance career. She fantasizes teaching the world a subject she calls "risk literacy." So few people are able to assess the amount of risk likely to be incurred through a particular course of action, she says persuasively. She was among them when she defied her late mother's advice against marrying the man who has wrecked her private life.

Natural disasters have increasingly become part of the unmet challenge of risk literacy. Climate change has called into question where we settle and how we protect our decisions about home. Nature's capriciousness complicates the rationality we work to apply to those inevitably partial judgments. Their parallel is the risk assessments most of us make when it comes to domestic partnerships. This is why I think focusing on domestic violence as a theme to sell this show minimizes the balance between natural and man-made shocks upon which "Natural Shocks" achieves its difficult poise. 

The play's title (and a basic part of what Angela has to say) comes from Hamlet's central soliloquy, perhaps the most famous speech in the

Angela's disorderly home basement is her refuge.

Shakespearean canon, opening "To be or not to be." Angela tells the audience that the melancholy Danish prince is not considering suicide, as is commonly assumed. This view was also proclaimed by Harold Bloom in his slim meditation on the play: "Hamlet: Poem Unlimited" (2003). The soliloquy turns out to be examining two unpalatable alternatives, exactly the fulcrum upon which the seesaw of insurance decisions rests.

In Hamlet's case, as Bloom puts it: "Being, or consciousness, is given the choice: suffer stoically, or take arms against the sea, and thus end sooner, consumed by the currents whose great pitch constitutes a height our enterprises cannot attain."

I don't think "Natural Shocks" recommends a particular course of action, certainly not one that is feasible. I recall that French commentators on Shakespeare, hemmed in by their received notion of dramatic proprieties, have focused on the phrase "taking arms against a sea of troubles," suggesting that Shakespeare should have written "siege of troubles." My quarrel with Eppich-Harris and Bryant is that the larger meaning of Angela's struggle recommends battling a siege of troubles, which unrealistically opens the possibility of victory on the ostensible battlefield. On the other hand, that may be the only avenue for hope: "to hope, till hope creates, from its own wreck the thing it contemplates" (Shelley).

I credit Gunderson, and Schlatter's performance under Bryant's direcction, for imbuing this besieged character with an intimacy and charm that cannot prevail against untenable circumstances. The most evident of them is meteorological, underlined by show's sound and lighting design. But unfortunately, she is set up to be more a victim of weaponized human rage. 

We come to see our nonstop exposure to Angela's perspective as a deathbed speech, against which we have no more defenses than Angela does against her fate. As Bloom writes elsewhere: "Hamlet can seem an actual person who somehow has been caught inside a play, so that he has to perform even though he doesn't want to." It may be that actuality in "Natural Shocks" that tempts emphasis on the play's market value as a call to action against domestic violence. We can only wish good luck to that effort, though it is not the primary reason to see this show.

[Photos: GhostLightIndy]

Wednesday, November 9, 2022

Transcultural affinity: Akiko Aoki forges smooth link between Japan and Massachusetts

Akiko Aoki is active on the New England jazz scene.

A Japanese singer with a solid inclination to interpret the American songbook displays her well-integrated versions with an adept small band in "Pure Imagination."

Akiko Aoki studied at the Berklee College in Boston after coming to the United States, went back to her native Japan for a while, then returned to the U.S. permanently. She married, raised a family, and helped her husband manage a restaurant, where she also sang. 

A widow since 2017, she has resumed focusing on her musical career. In this new release, she displays a charming manner, with the novelty of a Japanese accent being no obstacle to her putting across jazz and popular standards convincingly.

On a couple of tunes, she duets compatibly with her daughter, Mari, notably "Moondance," the Van Morrison hit, and Charlie Chaplin's "Smile." Typically, there's an unforced flow to the pair's phrasing that retains a lively edge. 

In the vocal solos that predominate, supported mainly by a rhythm section of Tim Ray (piano), Marshall Wood (bass), and Tommy Campbell (drums), she makes a conspicuous vibrato work well for her to vary her tone at phrase ends. 

I found her not quite comfortable with an uptempo samba, the Hendricks/Jobim "No More Blues," but thoroughly at ease when the underlying Brazilian rhythm is slow-paced, as in "Jardin d'hiver." She is a creditable ballad singer at any underlying tempo. Her occasional, laid-back scatting is well-judged and applied with style.

Among the special guests is notably reedman Ken Peplowski, who weighs in on five songs. He lends special star quality with his tenor solo on "Caravan." Peggy Lee's "I Love Being Here With You" has a fine arrangement by guest guitarist John Baboian, who teaches at Aoki's American alma mater. The title tune, an import from the Anthony Newley songbook, features the mellow trumpet of Berklee colleague Greg Hopkins. Collegiality seems a major element of this singer's skills, and it's really essential for anyone who makes his/her mark as a jazz singer.

Sunday, November 6, 2022

APA Premiere Series: Paul Cornish unveils a spectrum of influences and touch at the piano

Aspects of Paul Cornish with the Premiere Series trio

Already the variety of competition finalists is consciousness-expanding: From the abstract-expressionist energy of Esteban Castro last month, followers of the American Pianists Association have been transported into the filigree and pastels of Paul Cornish, leavened with an earthy force in evocations of his jazz heroines: Mary Lou Williams (1910-1981) and Geri Allen (1957-2017). 

The occasions have marked the start of the Premiere Series of monthly appearances by the 2023 finalsts for the  Cole Porter Fellowship of the American Pianists Awards.

Attending the second set at the Jazz Kitchen Saturday night, I reveled in the adaptability of the format's accompanists, bassist Nick Tucker and drummer Kenny Phelps. They partnered with apparent ease to both of the first two finalists, as they are likely to do with the series' remaining three: Thomas Linger (Dec. 3), Caelan Cardello (Jan. 28), and Isaiah J. Thompson (Feb. 25). 

There's astonishing variety in Cornish's piano style. At times he superficially sounded like two different pianists Saturday night. He is often comfortable with dissonance, but it's rarely of the jarring kind. Harmonically, he's a free spirit, though he never seems to lose his respect for structure, if this hour or so of his playing is indicative.

After starting with his interpretation of a piece by fellow free spirit Geri Allen, he and the trio settled into Duke Ellington's "Warm Valley," one of the more enchanting melodies to come from Duke's pen.  Bass and drums sympathetically supported Cornish's tender tone, and the relaxed reading of this evergreen ended with a clever coda based on "Lush Life."

Cornish told the crowd he was reluctant to include an original piece in his set: Is it important I do this? he asked APA senior artistic advisor Joel Harrison, who replied significantly: "Your whole life depends upon it." So the young pianist, imbibing such wisdom, offered a musical reflection upon the unaccustomed hour of 5 a.m., which looks different, Cornish pointed out, according to whether you stayed up that late or are getting up that early. 

Before turning again to his inspirations, Mary Lou Williams and Geri Allen, Cornish offered a tribute to his influential teacher in his hometown of Houston, with the only jazz piece the teacher knew: Dave Brubeck's "Strange Meadowlark." But as the set wound down, the most notable indications of the fired-up side of Cornish was the hard-digging Williams piece, "Dirge Blues," with lots of strong left hand grinding out the blues pattern in the bass. 

In "Queen Geri," Cornish's salute to Allen, his solo made a fetish of rat-a-tat repeated notes, boldly accented. It showed that bringing forth some flamboyance would not seem out-of-place when so smoothly folded into the pianist's generally soft-spoken manner. Cornish is evidently a player who has no hesitation in ranging across a wide spectrum of sonority and expression and making it all come across as uniquely his own. This makes his progress toward the hoped-for big prize in April all the more worth anticipating.

[Photos from APA livestream]

Saturday, November 5, 2022

Ageless masterpieces for an ISO audience stacked with young people

Stephen Hough is a favorite ISO guest soloist.

Stephen Hough
's guest appearances in Indianapolis go back a long way, even including a church concert with an area youth orchestra. But this weekend is his debut local engagement sporting a knighthood.

Over the summer, the venerable British pianist-composer became Sir Stephen Hough, so it was forgivable to imagine a new aura surrounding his return to the city  with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. The vehicle is the most expansive, and taxing, piano concerto in the standard repertoire: Brahms Second in B-flat major.

The performance grandly took up the concert's whole second half Friday evening at Hilbert Circle Theatre. The program is due to be repeated at 5:30 p.m. today. The initial offering had the heartening presence of many young people, including a contingent of students from the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music and a cadre of young adults representing Forte, the ISO support group for their demographic.

 Jose Luis Gomez, a Spaniard who has been music director of the Tucson Symphony Orchestra since 2016, is on the podium, enjoying the guest spotlight alone for the concert's first half: Verdi's Overture to "La Forza del Destino" and Strauss's Suite from "Der Rosenkavalier."

The operatic origin of both concert staples encouraged his demonstrative podium manner. Gomez also seemed overjoyed to be making his ISO debut, applauding the orchestra and complimenting it in remarks from the podium after the overture. 

Jose Luis Gomez is appearing here for the first time.

The curtain-raiser was highly charged in Friday's performance, and the lyrical contrasts were suffused with sentiment. After the clarinet solo, it took a short while for the rhythmic pulse to become precise. Otherwise, with the score's dramatic pauses stitched into place and every resumption of the stormy music around the "fate" theme firmly torrential, the rendition was soul-stirring.

A different sort of soul-stirring grabs hold in the middle of Richard Strauss' suite from his 1910 hit opera, "Der Rosenkavalier." Well-known for its technically anachronistic celebration of the waltz in a story set in the 18th century, the suite also holds up the vocal trio and duo that signal the turning of the opera's focus on love. I always respond to this music with a temporary acquisition of COVID symptoms: chills, fever, shortness of breath, and (unconfirmed by the CDC) near tears. The illusion is short-lived, but it's always a treasurable set of symptoms, and so it proved Friday night. 

Among the solos that fleck the lavish orchestration, concertmaster Kevin Lin's had the right spirit of entreaty and devotion. After the snare drum rolls back into play, the orchestra gave the climax great swing and weight.

The last time Hough soloed with the ISO, he played Rachmaninoff, and he is also known on record for spiritually lighter, but technically demanding, Romantic music. It's not surprising that, while he took to Brahms with evident seriousness, he didn't pull back from the blithe, scampering passages and the work's abundant gracefulness. The piano writing even has a pixieish quality in the scherzo second movement and in parts of the finale, and Hough had fun catering to it.

The third movement, imbued with the expected magical quality of the opening and recurring cello solos by Austin Huntington, became ethereal toward the protracted conclusion. The floating quality evident in Brahms' songs and late pieces for piano solo makes a prophetic appearance here, and Gomez guided a warm, controlled account of it in partnership with the soloist. Given the crowning majesty of Hough's playing in the fourth movement, it was obvious that the prolonged ovation at the end was Indianapolis' way of shouting, "Welcome back, Sir Stephen!"


Friday, November 4, 2022

2022 OnyxFest launches with two contrasting shows

Mari Evans: larger than life as she seemed to be in person

An advantage of seeing short plays by different writers on the same evening helps to highlight the pluses and minuses of OnyxFest, an annual festival of new work by black playwrights.

Back-to-back scheduling also allows the visitor to experience different views about what lifting up black voices in the theater means today: the festival's impactful title is "A Soulful Mosaic of Black Life on Stage."

The meanings can be intense and clearly expressed to the understanding, but also may be without a consistent and well-integrated address as to how good theater is felt on our pulses.

As opening night proceeded Thursday on the Basile Stage at IndyFringe Theater, allowances had to be made for a definite workshop feeling. Polished productions, both technically and artistically, might well have their place in the schedule through Nov. 12 (next weekend at IUPUI Campus Center Theater), but "Black Is My Color" and "A Noise in the Attic" are the only ones I'm able to attend.

"Black Is My Color" is Celeste Williams' multimedia way of holding up the admired cultural example of Mari Evans (1919-2017), an Ohioan by birth who called Indianapolis home from 1947 until her death. A multi-faceted author, she was both loyal to her adopted hometown and fiercely critical of its treatment of its black residents. Many of the excepts from her work that Williams uses focus particularly on the urban renewal that doomed the center of black life here, forever identified with Indiana Avenue. Progress toward desegregation must be assessed against the concurrent fracturing of a centered African-American community, in Evans' view.

Using a framework of dialogue between a couple of black women of different generations meeting in a coffeehouse, Williams has the older woman guide her troubled friend, using Evans as inspiration. The playwright then introduces an actress representing Evans to embody the poet's legacy. Crucially, the poet-essayist is presented through her wary regard for interviewers. She says outright that the exposure benefits only the interviewer and the media outlet represented, not her. But she relishes the opportunity to spread enlightenment, not just to vent.

Thursday's performances had pauses in the presentation that could not readily be understood as intentional. Were Evans' silences meant to be seen as her deliberate attempt to have what she's just said sink in, as calculated resonance? I wasn't sure. Some slight delays were in the slide projections, some in the music, some in the voice-over excerpts. I suspect more of a continuous flow is essential to the design of "Black Is My Color."

The choreography, carried out by two young women dancers, was a useful theatrical touch, fleshing out Evans' seated monologues with a visual, active representation of her narrative's significance. Musical underlining was provided by recorded excerpts from Premium Blend recordings. Everything seemed intended to be well-knit, and I felt the production was credibly tending in that direction. What came through was a kind of lecture-demonstration that could be of benefit both in and out of local schools. 

The second play, by festival director Vernon A. Williams, is a kind of family drama enfolding two contrasting love stories. One of them falls apart under the stresses and temptation of a rise in status for an upwardly mobile attorney-politician heading a fractious Carmel family. He's dealing, not too smartly, with keeping the peace between his teenage daughter and her stepmother, his wife. He's also got a romantic involvement on the side that could threaten his rise in the world.

"A Noise in the Attic" makes reference to a disturbance that has both real and symbolic meaning: A homeless man with large entertainment ambitions, sidelined by the pandemic,  has surreptitiously taken up residence in the attic, and hears everything that's going on. Some of what he learns is news to the wife, with whom he shares an affinity for creative work. At first she doesn't have much to rely on except a lively female friend's loyalty and advice.

The play has a clear-cut trajectory designed to work toward a happy ending. The signals along the way are perhaps too obvious. The writing is so brisk and detailed that perhaps the cast was encouraged to spill all their lines in rapid profusion. That's a familiar flaw in some undercooked theatrical productions, where the actors apparently forget that audiences are hearing for the first time speeches that are thoroughly familiar to the players. 

Variety of pacing would have been welcome. That includes a long episode in which the wife has just discovered the interloper and is holding a gun on him. His hands are raised the whole time he tells his story. The scene feels static, despite the tension. You come to believe that the woman would not ever fire that gun.

Nonetheless, Williams is thoroughly invested in his characters and their conflicts. You sense that as a writer he wants the audience to take certain things they say at face value, other things ironically. The relative anomaly of black people in Carmel is one source of irony; another is the disparity between the interloper's desperation and his hold over the family as an attentive eavesdropper. 

Ancient playwrights sometimes solved their plot tangles with a deus ex machina — a "god from the machine," a contrivance to make things come out right on the down-to-earth level. The noise in the attic is alluded to as a suspected rodent at the start, but here turns out to be a resourceful young man engineering the entire action as he ascends the ladder to stardom.

Thursday, November 3, 2022

Jeremy Pelt brings his 'Soundtrack' to the Jazz Kitchen

It seems like ages ago, like many events pre-pandemic, when Jeremy Pelt brought his quintet with the same personnel to the Jazz KitchenThat time, the inspiration was the visual arts, and the latest Pelt  recording was "The Artist." 

In his return visit, with the well-honed  ensemble of Chien Chien Lu, vibraphone; Victor Gould, piano;

Cover of the current CD: The quintet returns

Vicente Archer, bass, and Allan Mednard, drums,  assisting him, the trumpeter cast a wider net with "Soundtrack," including the title tune. That had the most reliable order of solos, with engaging statements from Lu, Pelt, and Gould. 

Lu, a native of Taiwan, showed again how compulsively watchable and listenable an artist she is. She is one of those to whom the cliche applies that she becomes the music she plays: "Who can tell the dancer from the dance?" as W.B. Yeats once wrote.

The tendency of Mednard's apt drumming to cast a shadow over Gould, which I noticed in the quintet's 2019 visit, was regrettable. Mednard's lighter touch behind a piano solo, with rapid snare-drum patterning, was welcome on the next piece, a Gould original titled "Sir Carter."

Pelt introduced that tune with an anecdote about the great bassist Ron Carter, his long career recently honored with a documentary, "Finding the Right Notes." Though the information was offered in a teasing way to imply that the bassist now has to be addressed as "Sir Carter," the reason for the title doesn't make sense. The late Queen of England never knighted Carter, as Pelt claimed, because non-Brits aren't eligible for knighthood. And the title "Sir" is always followed by the  honoree's first name, never his last. So one needs to think of the whole story as facetious.

Back to the serious stuff: "Black Love Stories" is a  Pelt original built off a chain of simple phrases. It presents itself tenderly, but Pelt's solo cast aside its tone of understatement to bring out fiery assertion, presumably to reflect on another aspect of the truth Pelt wants the piece's title to convey.

A ballad with a sustained level of quiet devotion came next: Marian McPartland's "There'll Be Other Times." Pelt's Harmon-muted solo was effectively succeeded by Lu's, using soft mallets. The trumpeter's tone and breath control were fully wedded to his wealth of well-proportioned ideas, and Gould's accompaniment featured spacious, complementary placement of chords and figuration.

From an earlier recording, "Griot," whose title honors the itinerant storytellers of West Africa,  a piece titled "Don't Dog the Source" made an explicit connection with the jazz tradition, as its very title warns  against imitation. The phrase comes from an interview Pelt did with saxophonist J.D. Allen for Pelt's interview collection, also called "Griot."

It summed up saxophonist Allen's warning to younger musicians to honor the source of one's artistry without adhering to it slavishly. Gould sat out this admonitory piece, in which the bassist took his only solo of the set (well worth the wait). The pianist returned for the exuberant finale, "I'm Still Standing," which could well represent survival of the pandemic for performing artists and their audiences alike.