Monday, December 12, 2022

Landmarks Center presents a Christmas cornucopia from Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra

There was lots of variety packed into the Christmas concert that Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra offered Sunday evening at Indiana Landmarks Center. 

Taking a break from its normal home at Butler University's Schrott Center and partnering with a specially recruited chorus, the ICO surveyed music of the season by five 18th-  and 19th-century masters: Marc-Antoine Charpentier, Arcangelo Corelli, J.S. Bach, G.F. Handel, and Hector Berlioz.

The spectrum probably compelled more trimming than desirable of the best-known selection, the Advent and Christmas portion of Handel's "Messiah." Several favorites were missing as a result, and I am used to hearing "His yoke is easy" as the chorus ending the oratorio's first part, not "Hallelujah."

But for selling the show to the public, I realize that the Hallelujah Chorus was inevitable as a concert finale. I once sang in a choir that attracted a large crowd for a performance of the whole work, and watched a significant trickle of departing attendees right after we sang the Hallelujah Chorus. A word-

Matthew Kraemer also celebrated his birthday Sunday.

association test with "Handel's 'Messiah'" on the list would be sure to trigger an instant "Hallelujah Chorus" response from most people.

The highlights of the excerpts that ICO music director Matthew Kraemer conducted made an immediate impact with the tenor soloist's "Comfort ye" and "Ev'ry valley." Norman Shankle displayed exemplary diction and a vigorous good-news expressiveness in both the recitative and the aria. A requisite tenderness was introduced in the solos by mezzo-soprano Mitzi Westra, rising to splendor in the aria "O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion." 

Bass soloist David Ruggers gave urgency to the light-dark contrasts of the text in his recitative and aria. In the latter, the push-pull dynamics marred his phrasing somewhat. Those numbers are Handel's shrewd prelude to the chorus "For unto us a child is born," which unfortunately was omitted as the performance went directly into the "Pifa" (Pastoral Symphony). That cut had the advantage, at least, of suggesting the surprise of the shepherds at what the angel is about to announce to them.

The soprano soloist, Sarah Brailey, had the right assertive quality for handling the narrative that sets up the chorus "Glory to God," which brings the trumpet into play for the first time, handled immaculately by John Rommel. She was challenged by the rapid passages in "Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion," which had some feeling of catching up despite her evident mastery of the role. 

"And who shall stand when he appeareth?" one of the skipped arias asks, referring to the title character. The answer on Sunday came right after "Rejoice greatly" and it was "the audience, as usual." The tradition is regrettable for "Hallelujah," yet it is unlikely ever to disappear. It was a useful preparation for the also inevitable standing ovation that put a seal of approval on the entire performance.

It all started with Bach's "Christmas cantata," a work that delays Christmas explicitness until the alto aria, "Ach Herr, was ist ein Menschenkind." It was sung by Westra, with her customary indication that whatever she sings means the world to her at that moment. All "Messiah" soloists were involved here, and all did exemplary work, handling the melismatic complexity adeptly. The chorus, well-trained by Eric Schmidt of DePauw University, was fairly vague in matters of German diction in the initial chorus, but sounded shipshape in the short concluding chorale.

The chorus of about 20 also gave a good account of the best-known part of Berlioz's "L'enfance du Christ," the shepherd's farewell chorus to the Holy Family as it flees to safety in Egypt. I feel less competent to judge its command of French, but it sounded serviceable. And the music, along with the pensive overture to Part Two, is a sure way to stimulate approval from people who think they hate Berlioz. Both were nicely performed.

Five soloists from the choir helped put across the Kyrie and Gloria of Charpentier's "Messe de minuit Noel," with its brisk buoyancy at first, unusual in the plea for mercy that opens the Mass, but typical of French music. Flutes were well poised to supplement the appeal of a two-soprano duet later.

The one piece without vocal participation was the best-known piece today of a pioneer of Italian ensemble music. Corelli's Concerto Grosso, op. 6, no. 8, enjoyed a performance with its peppy movements and lyrical movements well-shaped and able to convey the joy of the season. The whole concert was more than adequate to that annual mission and sense of purpose.


Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Dover beachhead: Another esteemed quartet stakes a claim on late Beethoven

Completing its Beethoven cycle for Cedille Records, the Dover Quartet has put a seal on its excellent

Dover Quartet concludes its three-volume Beethoven journey for Cedille.

permanent accomplishment so far. "Volume 3: The Late Quartets" brings its collection of Ludwig van Beethoven's 16 to a stunning conclusion.

The Dover's manner with the twelfth through fifteenth quartets, plus the "Great Fugue" (Grosse Fuge), is distinguished by pervasive lyricism, though the recurring tumult and wealth of surprises are not scanted.

One commentator has described the slow movement of Op. 132 as a demonstration of "how slow you can ride a bike without falling off." The Dover meets that difficult standard with the self-possession of star athletes. Violinists Joel Link and Bryan Lee, violist Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt, and cellist Camden Shaw illustrate both their precise coordination of pace and the gracefulness of every expressive gesture. As a result, the quartets' lengthiest movement doesn't drift into tedium: Heiliger Dankgesang is just as spiritually lofty as its title suggests.

In the Grosse Fuge, the thick underbrush of Beethoven's writing is made into a clear pathway without attempting to make light of all the machete hacking required to get through it all cohesively.

There is always balance in voicing, resembling a fine chamber choir, as in the maestoso introduction to op. 127. The score's call for "molto cantabile" in the second movement adheres to the demand for a singing quality, but the chromatic passages are never sentimentalized.

In another lyrical highlight, the "Cavatina" movement of op. 130, good control of vibrato allows the playing to throb with passion without coming close to smearing the makeup. 

The vast expressive variety of these quartets gets due consideration. At the same time, the Dover impresses its personality on the music at every turn. It is expressively engaged, but avoids getting bogged down in overliteral pursuit of the composer's demands on the page. 

For Beethoven in his total deafness, "Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
 are sweeter" (as John Keats asserted in his "Ode on a Grecian Urn"). This ensemble's performances acknowledge the strange beauty of that assertion while proclaiming the ineffable sweetness and lifelike energy of what we hear on these three discs.

Monday, December 5, 2022

Steel City pianist pays tribute to a forebear on 'Tone Paintings: The Music of Dodo Marmarosa'

Craig Davis, a current fixture as a jazz pianist in his native Pittsburgh, works with the veteran bass-drums

"Tone Paintings" erects a memorial.

team of John Clayton and Jeff Hamilton to recall the inspired melody-rich bebop style of Michael "Dodo" Marmarosa on a new release from the Steel City label MCG Jazz.

"Tone Paintings" takes its title from a modernist composition of Marmorosa that receives an attractive interpretation here from the trio. There are 11 tracks in all, indicative of the creative range of a pianist whose notable early career ended in obscurity. 

Davis made a personal discovery of Marmarosa while exploring Pittsburgh's rich heritage in jazz pianists, including Mary Lou Williams, Errol Garner, Ahmad Jamal and Billy Strayhorn. "Here's this guy who was boppin' with Bird and he was pushing the envelope at the same time," Davis said of the pianist who played with Charlie Parker and others in advancing jazz in the most appealing way in the 1940s.

Two adjacent tracks suggest some of the Marmarosa range sympathetically absorbed by Davis and his sidemen. The reflective title piece is followed by the peppy "Battle of the Balcony Jive." Davis' fleet manner works hand in glove with the Clayton-Hamilton team. The drummer's often feathery-light touch allows also for brisk flights of fancy, and the bassist's command of the mainstream idiom on his instrument is absolute.

Evenly divided contributions animate the one Davis original, "A Ditty for Dodo." It's a ballad, with an  introspective cast similar to the disc-closer, "Dodo's Lament." As usual in this kind of piece, Hamilton shows he's a master of brushes. 

Also notable is the suave "Gary Departs," over which the trio simply glides like vintage Fred and Ginger. "Compadoo" is a deft contrafact on an old song that's a favorite for such treatment, "Sweet Georgia Brown." The saluted bop pianist's essential style is celebrated in the contrasting fashion that two of his titles suggest: "Dodo's Bounce" and "Dodo's Blues."

All told, this is a tribute album that falls within such releases without ossified museum reverence. But still, the achievement of Marmarosa is worth the museum niche it gets here.

Sunday, December 4, 2022

Digging through lightness: Thomas Linger plays third Premiere Series trio sets for APA

It could be daring to say it, but I sense there's both a wink and a bit of self-revelation behind the original

Thomas Linger worked with Kenny Phelps and Nick Tucker.

tune Thomas Linger played during his second set Saturday night at the Jazz Kitchen: "Mercurial Behemoth" he called it, and it was tacked on to the sincere charm of the standard "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." 

As finalist in the 2023 American Pianists Awards, Linger was presented in a trio evening in American Pianists Association's Premiere Series. There are two more finalists to hear after the turn of the year, culminating in two evenings of finals in April. The club setting, with just bass and drums in accompaniment, tests young jazz pianists in the most likely setting for much of their careers.

Linger, a North Carolinian now living in New York City and well-launched there on his own, displayed his experience, his audience rapport, his creativity — all qualities that he blended well in the way he constructed his second set. With Ray Noble's chestnut "Cherokee," he chose his solo spot well, as capable sidemen Nick Tucker, bass, and Kenny Phelps, drums, left the stage, returning to help him cap the set with Cole Porter's "I Love You" and Thelonious Monk's "Well You Needn't."

His style incorporates a ton of filigree. In his tender version of the Porter song, he filled the bridge with harplike swirls. He had given his right hand free rein from the start in an original titled "Crystal Cave." In his free-floating solo on George Shearing's "She," he juxtaposed direct and ornamented playing, folding in greater intensity in rapport with Phelps' drums. A Nick Tucker solo kept the ballad connection alive.

Phelps' drive was so infectious in McCoy Tyner's "Inception" that I got to thinking it would be a cryin' shame if the drummer didn't get a solo on this one. And he did, and it was dynamic. Linger gave plenty of opportunity for his local sidemen to shine, and both took advantage on a fast blues called "Blues Inside Out," by George Coleman. That piece showed a more abstract take on the form, contrasted with what preceded it, the Ellington romp "Things Ain't What They Used to Be." Linger teased the audience with a long, pedaled introduction and several generic blues choruses before stating the theme sotto voce and continuing in that vein.

He showed off the vigor of his left hand with consistent bass emphasis in "Cherokee," the set's one unaccompanied piece. It was a novel approach that was also applied to  "Well You Needn't," which he harmonized differently from Monk while preserving  the essence of the piece. Phelps showed his originality, varying his tumultuous turns in exchanges with the pianist by ending with a witty few measures that evoked Monk's idiosyncratic sense of humor. He's the most musical drummer around.

I was struck by the original Linger played just before "Cherokee." I'm convinced that "Sans Au Revoir," taken at a relaxed Latin tempo, is based on "St. James Infirmary." I could be wrong, but I'm not sure I was merely reminded of that ancient standard. I think Linger used the old tune's blues structure, melodic arc and harmonic progression in the well-established manner of a contrafact, as such borrowings are known and have been common since the bebop era more than 70 years ago. (The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz lists more than two dozen contrafacts for "Cherokee" alone; "I Got Rhythm" is the all-time champ.)

I don't believe I've heard "St. James Infirmary" — live or on a recording — since I wrote about it in May 2013, when this blog was a babe. The Red Hot Whiskey Sippers, led by Rich Dole and Bill Lancton, played it at the club's outdoor "shrimp boil." In my posted review, I went on a bit about the song as a lament that oddly validates the lamenter, quoting its marvelous second verse:  

Let her go, let her go, God bless her,
Wherever she may be;
She can look this wide world over,
She'll never find a sweet man like me.

That's sort of a "sans au revoir," and French is of course a traditional tongue in New Orleans, where "St. James Infirmary" may have been born. Am I letting my imagination run away with me? Maybe, but I have to thank or blame Thomas Linger for that. He could indeed be a "mercurial behemoth." He got me into personal blog archaeology going back nearly seventeen hundred posts ago! As with most good jazz musicians, his performances promise to excavate the past and build for the future.

[Photos by Rob Ambrose]




Saturday, December 3, 2022

Scrooge reinvents himself once again, dashing through the snow at IRT


Scrooge upbraids his clerk, Bob Cratchit.

For the first time in four years I've seen Indiana Repertory Theatre's production of "A Christmas Carol," as adapted by Tom Haas from Charles Dickens' novella, I've sensed a show chastened by the pandemic.

I'm allowing for having projected personal feelings of having come through a trying historical episode onto the show. The robustness of the re-creation remains to a large degree, but the stage action feels starker this time around, and the cast is smaller. The bitter side of the fantasy leaves its imprint, despite the famous happy ending, in which the habitual skinflint and misanthrope becomes a one-man source of Christmas cheer in merry old, uncharacteristically snow-covered London.

Janet Allen directs the show in her last season as IRT's artistic director. And the company itself is observing another milestone, its golden anniversary, in 2022-23. For me, this version conveys the sense that the world has been through something that has dispelled all illusion. The action is more focused toward downstage, with lighting that aims to put the show's fantastic elements in their place as departures from the defining light of real life.

For the second time but a first for me, Rob Johansen is cast as Ebenezer Scrooge, bringing his gift for extravagant facial and physical acting to the role. This Scrooge presents us with a Victorian model of the Type A personality: He's not just mean, he's mean out of wound-up conviction and habit — a menace of executive control that Dickens would later maximize as Gradgrind in "Hard Times."

The Cratchit family unwittingly enlightens Scrooge.

Scrooge's definitive  "Bah, humbug!" takes its place along a spectrum of dismissiveness toward any appeals to his sense of charity or other seasonal uplift. What makes the characterization work so well, at least the way I saw it Friday night, is that his sudden buoyancy after three disturbing, time-traveling dreams has the same nervous energy as the aging crank he has left behind him. You can see the new Scrooge as the archetype of the Victorian reformer, an apostle of social progress.

Ryan Artzberger, a  Scrooge in many IRT productions dating back to 2010, is now the severely dominated clerk Bob Cratchit. He is the saintly head of a poor family, exemplifying the questionable blessedness of poverty. But of course, that's no great honor either, as Tevye reminds God in "Fiddler on the Roof." Mrs. Cratchit represents that withering viewpoint in "A Christmas Carol" in the vivid performance of Jennifer Johansen.

 Artzberger and Johansen share with several other cast members the duties of several lesser roles each. (With assistance from the show's sound design, Artzberger is also a crucial warning presence as Marley's Ghost, the business-partner figure who triggers the parade of bad dreams that humble Scrooge.) 

Linda Pisano's costume designs reach their summit in the dazzling appearance of Maria Argentina

Representing the persistence of merriment: Sean Blake as Christmas Present

Souza as Christmas Past and Sean Blake as Christmas Present. Each acts as an illuminating guide to  the gradually aware, and sometimes reluctantly reminiscent, Scrooge as he surveys his regrettable past as well as the world in which he's fallen asleep, oblivious to its deep concerns. A hush settled over the audience particularly in the strained dialogue the old man witnesses between Young Scrooge (Elliot Sagay) and his crestfallen fiancee, Belle (Caroline Chu). 

The production sustains its customary flow with the smooth use of trapdoors on the raked stage and the deft textural variety lent by narrative choral speaking yielding to dialogue and back. Haas' skill in preserving Dickens' narrative voice while the story moves forward in stage action continues to be valid. From when we first hear that Marley was "as dead as a doornail, to begin with," we are sensitized to a masterpiece that drives home obvious as well as subtle truths. The permanence of myth is no accident, as IRT is appropriately keen to remind us every year with  "A Christmas Carol."

[Photos by Zach Rosing]