Monday, January 30, 2023

Melody leads the way on guitarist Skip Grasso's 'Becoming'

 A mellowness supporting the drive of Skip Grasso's music on "Becoming" will make his music attractive

Skip Grasso composes with charm and wit.

in the background for some listeners. But then, a lot of listening today to all kinds of music is preferred when taken in as background. If you pay steady attention to "Becoming," the rewards are nonetheless there.

The melodic emphasis is reinforced by a tendency to have piano and guitar share an emphasis on the tunes, echoing the vibes-and-piano parallelism of classic George Shearing. 

Supporting this sound is the amiable bass playing of Harvie S. On the opening track, it's good to hear his upright bass in a solo, but overall he is underrepresented in the mix, though he is well worth hearing in accompaniment. On the other hand, the estimable veteran Billy Drummond is often a little too prominent, lending to a slight, persistent imbalance, despite the drummer's tastefulness.

"Harvie Livingston Seagull" may be seen as a tribute to the bassist. It brings him into zesty but uninsistent interplay with the Baltimore-based bandleader, who never forces his hand. With keyboardist Anthony Pocetti turning to the electric piano, the overall vibe is sweetly consistent. 

I admired the smooth samba layout of "Don't Forget." The ballad "Canto Belo" is clearly a natural change of pace for this ensemble. For kicking up its heels and its open-air feeling, "Garry on a Bike Ride" could hardly be more appealing. The set ends with the self-evident feeling of bright anticipation in "Spring Forward." 

There is nothing abstruse about "Becoming," a quality that never fails to be welcome in jazz.

Sunday, January 29, 2023

With Caelan Cardello, Premiere Series enters its 2023 last act, as presenting APA moves toward Cole Porter Fellowship

Caelan Cordello delivered first-class piano jazz.

 A personal take on the mainstream of post-bop piano impressed a capacity audience during the first set of the Premiere Series performances Saturday night by Caelan Cardello.

Following the usual format of hour-long sets including bassist Nick Tucker and drummer Kenny Phelps, Cardello is the fourth of five finalists in the 2023 American Pianists Association jazz piano competition.  He is spending the better part of two weeks in Indianapolis, with the Jazz Kitchen trio appearance climaxing the end of the first week of residency. 

The New Jerseyite has  the unusual story of being first exposed to music while in the womb — the ultimate in early-start stories among musicians (attendees learned about it in the program book). Many years of post-birth training later, Cordello is more than ready to display his absorption of the modern-jazz tradition in a keyboard style that spans generations easily and puts a personal stamp on everything.

I particularly liked his inventiveness with the old standard "I'm Old-Fashioned," and not just because he tucked a witty quote from "Pop Goes the Weasel" into his solo. There were flights of fancy wholly unreliant on quotation. He treated the tune respectfully but with admirable freedom. Tucker's tidy solo provided just the right amount of relief without posing a huge contrast to Cardello's gently extravagant playing.

Tucker's mastery of the part of his instrument's basic vocabulary known as the "walking" bass provided a lot of the devout vigor in "Grace of God," a piece by the late Harold Mabern, one of Cordello's teachers and a major influence, as the pianist said. Cordello took an eloquent single-line solo a la Bud Powell. Phelps knew just when to switch from brushes to sticks and back again. The coda was aptly meditative and exquisitely detailed. So was the one appended to Cole Porter's "Easy to Love," with its teasing insinuations.

Peppy, hard driving at rapid tempos characterized "Black Holes" by Renee Rosnes and "Up There" by Ray Brown. The latter piece had a lengthy unaccompanied section in which Cordello boisterously channeled James P. Johnson, the godfather of stride piano.

 The excitement had already been signaled in the opening piece (Freddie Hubbard's "Thermo"), its stop-start rhythmic profile showing how well the competition finalist and the two local masters he was working with had achieved rapport.

Throughout that first set, Cordello's maturity and his comfort locking into tradition never got in the way of his coming up with fresh inspirations. The blend bodes well for his success as the APA Awards proceed. 

[Photo by Rob Ambrose]

Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra proposes its 'winter playlist' with three women: two composers, one soloist

ICO guest conductor Kazem Abdullah has Indiana roots.

Eminent in their respective eras as musical standouts upholding the accomplishments of women, Louise Farrenc and Jennifer Higdon were represented by major works in Saturday's concert by the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra titled "Winter Playlist."

Butler University's Schrott Center for the Arts also welcomed two guest artists; Kazem Abdullah on the podium and Bella Hristova as soloist in Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor.

Farrenc enjoyed an early 19th-century career as a scholar and performer with a solid family position in French musical life. Her Third Symphony (also in G minor) was unpublished in her lifetime. The ICO filled the second half with this piece, an overall cheerful work despite its minor mode and suggestions of Romantic gloom and shadow along the way. 

Those moods were all set in a buoyant sort of language reminiscent of Felix Mendelssohn, especially in the elfin scherzo (third movement). The unity of the ensemble, essential to music of such brisk capriciousness, was remarkable.

Merry and menacing moods were oddly well-blended in the finale under Abdullah's guidance. Principal wind players were notably alert and lively throughout: the trio of the third movement featured vaulting arpeggios. Oboe, flute, clarinet and bassoon principals especially mastered their highlighted roles.

On the whole, Farrenc's symphony is not one I would yearn to hear repeated, but the ICO's search for diversity to enhance the classical canon is a worthwhile effort.

The music of Higdon, a contemporary whose output is much more conspicuous in today's active repertoire than Farrenc's was in her era, has been heard here several times, notably in 2010 with the premiere of her Violin Concerto, which went on to win that year's Pulitzer Prize. "Cold Mountain," based on a best-selling historical novel, was a hit on the operatic stage several years later, with well-received productions in Santa Fe and Philadelphia. A suite the composer drew from the opera opened this ICO concert. 

Bella Hristova 's playing is well-known here..
It was hard to focus on the integrity of this concoction, as so many aspects of the opera were brought forward in anthology-like fashion. The writing is immediately appealing, however, with a catchy pulse characterizing the opening episode and suggestions of mountain music appropriate to the story's setting in western North Carolina. 

A lyrical section features oboe and bassoon in counterpoint. Later, paired horn and trumpet, delicately supported by mallet percussion, introduce a chorale-like buildup. As the tempo picks up, a trombone solo allowed ICO patrons to hear Jared Rodin, the orchestra's principal since 1985 (Musicians of the Cloister days) take a rare turn in the spotlight. Another oboe melody, handled with his usual aplomb by Leonid Sirotkin, sets up the expected maestoso peroration for the ensemble.

Hristova has had a following here since she was among the laureates in the 2006 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis. Her impassioned performance of the Prokofiev concerto, with a golden tone well-exhibited in the second movement, made a hit with Saturday's audience. She always found moments of lyrical charm, even among the sometimes ironic dash and insouciance of the fast music. In the latter, she occasionally pushed the tempo slightly ahead of the orchestra, though the drag was insubstantial. Called back for an encore, she played "Rachenitsa" by Petar Hristoskov, a 20th-century violinist-composer from the soloist's homeland, Bulgaria.

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

NY Philharmonic String Quartet triumphs in annual collaboration between two organizations

The Adagio introduction to Mozart's String Quartet in C major, K. 465, no longer appears to be flecked with "mistakes," since so much of the "dissonance" that provides its nickname was embedded in music through the century following the composer's death in 1791.

New York Philharmonic String Quartet nearly filled Landmarks Center.
What remains is the expressive contrast that is so common in Mozart's music. Thus, the flowing statement that the New York Philharmonic String Quartet made as it launched its concert at Indiana Landmarks Center sounded natural and of a piece with all that followed. 


The white-key tonality emerges supreme in this work, and the consonance proved also a hallmark of how these four principals work together. Like the best full-time string quartets, these musicians are used to processing all-points bulletins from the music played around them in their workaday jobs with the New York Philharmonic. Their success as a unit is keyed to how well they listen — a factor frankly never absent from any successful music performance.

The ensemble's presentation here Tuesday night represented the current season's collaboration by the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis and the Ensemble Music Society. The guest artists' link to the IVCI  comes through first violinist Frank Huang, Philharmonic concertmaster and 2002 competition laureate. Other members are Quianquian Li, second violin; Cynthia Phelps, viola, and Carter Brey, cello.

The center's Grand Hall was nearly filled to its capacity of 560 for a concert that also included Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" Quartet and a short work by the young, Atlanta-based composer Joel Thompson. 

In the "Dissonance" Quartet, the way a recurring four-note figure was passed around in the second movement was a model of similarity in tone and articulation. And the solidity of dynamic contrasts in quick succession in the minuet (third movement) prepared the way for the dramatic oomph of the Trio. 

Here again, when this well-played, Mozart's instrumental music calls to mind the variety and significance of his writing for operatic voices. The finale carried out its responsibility to dispel whatever shadows lingered from that notorious first-movement introduction. Mozart at his sunniest, most energetic and most worldly-wise came to the fore in this performance.

Joel Thompson composed "Response."

Thompson's work, around five minutes long, has the tendentious but justifiable title of "In Response to the Madness." Written in 2019, it is the composer's answer to "the political mayhem, the massacres, the climate, and our seemingly futile attempts at trying to make things better." The quotation comes from Thompson's program note, which ends with the hope that  — against all evidence to date — music may help generate positive change.

Who could resist clasping such a composition to his or her bosom? Written not to a program but to a purpose, this is a piece that occupies a more reflective distance from current anxieties than the late George Crumb's "Black Angels," a piece for amplified string quartet composed in another annus horribilis, 1970. The vehemence here is contrasted with simple anxiety and lamentation.

Lyrical moments provide hopeful signs amid the gut punches of recurring tumult in music that gets right to the point. They sink back down with a touch of sentimental resignation. The violence that then threatens to dominate is checked by a slow, muted passage with contrapuntal aspects that I take to be a dogged effort to find emotional balance. The speed and dark vigor then build up to a final, stark chord. The piece amounts to effective African-American commentary with a columnist's conciseness, on the order of Leonard Pitts, Eugene Robinson or Charles M. Blow.

After intermission came a riveting performance of Franz Schubert's Quartet in D minor, D. 810. It draws its apt title from the second movement's inspired variations of the composer's song "Death and the Maiden." As Nicholas Johnson's fine program note points out, death haunts the entire composition by implication. When it sorrows, it's funereal. When it dances, it's a Totentanz (to borrow the German word Franz Liszt applied to a work based on much-used Latin chant of no comfort, Dies irae). 

As a music critic, Robert Schumann famously admired Schubert's "heavenly lengths"; this string quartet goes to hellish lengths. The consolation comes in the fascination the music consistently arouses in listeners mesmerized by the score's imaginative variety. Performances so forceful and well-blended as this one probably never weary anyone. The suspenseful denouement in the finale could hardly have put a firmer stamp on the command the New York Philharmonic String Quartet displayed throughout the concert.

Monday, January 23, 2023

Dave Stryker displays his trio in 'Prime' form on new CD

Dave Stryker has honed his trio mastery with Jared Gold and McClenty Hunter.
Since joining the adjunct faculty of the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University, Dave Stryker has anchored his national reputation as guitarist and bandleader in Bloomington. But his long association with major artists in New York City had moved him into the top rank of jazz guitarists decades ago.

On Strikezone Records, his masterly, seasoned organ trio makes a major statement with "Prime," evincing  his affinity with organist Jared Gold and drummer McClenty Hunter. The title tune finds all three players contributing essential output and verve to the music.  This rapport is characteristic. Stryker's compositions (eight of the nine on this disc) are varied, but the overall impression is of a keenly focused ensemble.

Gold has a dry, sometimes pointillistic organ style that opens up many avenues of harmonic and melodic dialogue with the guitar. There can be a touch of nicely smeared, bluesy funk to Gold's playing when appropriate, as in the soulful, laid-back "Lockdown." The mood is definitive in Stryker's smoky, reflective solo.

The leader's own saturation in that side of jazz was long ago attested to in his sideman work with Stanley Turrentine and Jack McDuff. It shows up concisely in such moments as his unaccompanied introduction to the bouncy "Dude's Lounge," which concludes the CD and recalls Stryker's early development at the Harlem club of that name.

Hunter's lively, in-the-pocket manner is typically forward on that tune. His solo there settles into a snare-drum groove with tom-tom accents; it amiably invites the rest of the trio back in to end the set. The drummer kicks the peppy "Mac" into high gear at the start. The piece features Gold in his more florid aspect. The chording of organ and guitar is steadily complementary; there is nothing routine about either instrument in accompaniment. 

"Captain Jack," in clear tribute to McDuff, maintains its sunny, medium-swing manner. It features an especially witty, delightfully eccentric organ solo. The plainly but significantly titled "Hope" has an upward reach to its theme that is underlined by the harmonic patterns Gold lays down. 

This disc is indeed a prime example of its durable guitar-organ-drums genre, as guided by a veteran musician appropriately placed in the mentor stage he deserves, while not resting on his ever-fresh laurels.

Saturday, January 21, 2023

New life in an old violin concerto: Francesca Dego casts wisely in Mozart #5

Francesca Dego gave extra animation to Mozart.

 A couple of masterpieces by teenagers bulk large this weekend at Hilbert Circle Theatre as the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra welcomes two fascinating guest artists: conductor Asher Fisch and violinist Francesca Dego. The program's third piece offers insight into Fisch's skills and rapport with an orchestra new to him.

Robert Schumann ascended quickly to mastery as a literary-minded romantic whose calculated maturity got caught up in the mental illness that was to bring him down in middle age. His Overture to "Manfred," put well into the context of the composer's affinities by the program notes (Marianne Williams Tobias), represents his conflicted attitude toward viability in the theater.

The overture survives, amid a clutch of cast-off pieces inspired by Lord Byron's isolated hero — a manic-depressive with obvious resonance for Schumann. The ISO opens this program with the work, and Fisch's regard for it was immediately evident in Friday's performance (there's a second one at 5:30 this afternoon). The inevitable mood swings were well-controlled. The tensile strength in Fisch's podium manner — the clear pulse and the phrasing acumen — served the music well. The control he exerted over the responsive ensemble never got in the way of the score's restless warmth of feeling.

In retrospect, the overture performance amounted to a showcase for qualities Fisch would bring to Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 1 in F minor after intermission. The most distinguished symphonist of the 20th century, Shostakovich entered the lists at age 19, receptive to various influences as a student but already showing a flair for orchestral color and dynamic energy that bore his signature.  

In remarks from the podium, Fisch prepared the audience for the variety of expression and melodic thrust laid out in the first movement, in particular the grotesqueness that figures throughout. The different voices making revolving-door entrances were nicely introduced. Small solos are unconventionally laid out, with ad hoc concertino groups forming and dissolving. Chiaroscuro shades flashed before us in the second movement, and Fisch managed shifting tempos expertly. 

Asher Fisch showed mastery of phrasing, tempo, and color.

The soloing became spectacular, but in an oddly foreboding way, in the slow movement. You couldn't help thinking that the young composer, feeling his oats though he was in 1925, might have been nursing feelings of dread as Soviet life narrowed against progressive possibilities: Lenin, having died the year before, was being replaced by a much more repressive leader who was to put Shostakovich and all his artistic compatriots in huge peril over the next decade. 

The symphony's finale seems to blow away such concerns, but the exuberance is shadowed by the irony that often overtakes Shostakovich's triumphant mode. Again, tempo shifts and detailed phrasing, always linked to expressive purposes, characterized the performance: it was good to have a maestro in charge who knows the difference between largo and lento, and can give distinction to the music that  goes with each of those slow tempos in this score. But faster paces dominate, and the layering of textures exhilarates. Robust climaxes were smoothly prepared, mixed amid the recurring surprises.

This orchestra, significantly younger than it was pre-pandemic, sounds as good as ever. It is in excellent shape to be led by a new music director. I hope the musicians are as lucky in the selection as he or she surely will be. 

Dego played the most popular of the five violin concertos Mozart wrote, also at age 19: No. 5 in A major ("Turkish"). Her lean tone drew attention to her agility in the first movement, but more noteworthy was her instinct for question-and-answer phrasing. Within the solo part, one heard continual dialogue. The effect was not overblown, but offered harbingers of Mozart's great operas to come. The tone attained splendor in the cadenza (her own?) becoming postively incandescent: I thought (following Romeo about Juliet): "O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright."

Dego's performance took on a courtly air in the middle movement; her cadenza kept the movement soft-spoken as it paraphrased the melodies with some neatly applied double-stops. Decorative elements were also topnotch in the finale Rondo: Tempo di Minuetto, and especially idiomatic in the "Turkish" episode that gives the piece its nickname. Orchestra and soloist took it at a rowdy pace, which suited Fisch's remark during "Words on Music" that while the minuet was being danced in the salons of Vienna, the Ottoman soldiery was partying just outside the gates. Called back by the larger than usual audience for an encore, Dego obliged with a seductive performance of Paganini's Caprice No. 13.


Monday, January 16, 2023

Lighting out for the territory: IRT's 'Flyin' West' puts real feet under the dream of black freedom

Sophie waxes eloquent about Nicodemus as skeptical Leah listens.

When Huckleberry Finn resolves to light out for the territory at the end of his book, he does so to escape the limitations of civilized life as conceived in mid-19th-century Missouri. Mark Twain's story makes it clear Huck has also learned much about white-skin privilege along the way, and despite its daunting and frequent use of a now-banned word, the novel has much to teach us still about the heavy toll racism takes on all Americans, even those who endorse it.

Seen from the present day and with a setting somewhat later and to the west, Pearl Cleage's "Flyin' West" is an explicit drama about the damage to the souls of black folk (W.E.B. Du Bois' phrase) in the post-slavery decades, as Jim Crow laws increasingly gripped the defeated Confederacy. The playwright holds up the historical example of 1890 Nicodemus, Kansas, through the fictional stories of three sisters and an elderly "aunt," refugees from Memphis, Tennessee. Their mission in their new home is to live among their own and resist the break-up of the young all-black community in the face of manipulation by speculators.

Indiana Repertory Theatre is bringing back the play in a new production as part of its 50th-anniversary season. The victory finally achieved through the characters' collective efforts has the suspense and lurid development of classic melodrama. The outcome is similar to the denouement of another Southern family play, Lillian Hellman's "The Little Foxes," but with a happier result.

Helpful neighbor pitches woo to middle sister.

The script is rich in perspectives on race, including "colorism" and the multifaceted checks on black achievement by persistent discrimination and oppression. The displacement of the prairie's original inhabitants is a shadowy part of the story, hanging fatalistically over the transitory nature of minority-group thriving. And though "Flyin' West" only hints at it, white settlers as well were to be headed for ruin and displacement by capitalist machinations: As the Dust Bowl bard Woody Guthrie noted decades later, "some rob you with a six-gun, some with a fountain pen." 

Director Raelle Myrick-Hodges draws from her cast performances that are vivid and dramatically telling. The style is of a heightened realism that recalls the tone and rhythms of melodrama. It makes sense, for instance, for Dwandra Nicole Lampkin to come downstage to tell Miss Leah's chilling story directly to the audience. The fourth wall is not often broken in this play, though audiences are prepared for it by some brief narrative guidance as the two-act production gets under way.

Proud poet and adoring wife are welcomed by Fannie.

An elderly woman deeply scarred by slavery, Miss Leah is yet a resilient older inhabitant of the small town, to which three sisters, led by the feisty Sophie (LaKesha Lorene), have come with fierce dreams of independence. 

The  youngest, Minnie (Kayla Mary Jane), has been away, living as a newlywed in London, where she has been effectively brainwashed by visions of black freedom in the larger white world. She and her husband (Allen Tedder), a stuffy, "dicty" poet with a commanding manner, come to town hiding a troubled history as a couple. Thanks to Frank's ambitious vanity, they see their lighter complexions as passports to a life away from racial limitations. 

In a middle position, with a genuine but naive dignity and self-possession crucial to her survival, is Fannie (L'Oreal Lampley), smitten with the bashful attentions of a neighborly suitor, Wil Parish (Enoch King).

Pearls of wit and wisdom, resolve, and conversational adeptness characterize the acting, with crisp delivery and well-modulated emotion and intelligence the norm. I thought that in the first act some slight pauses between the more arresting thoughts would have suited Sunday's performance. Then, at intermission, I read Cleage's clear statement that "I purposely people my plays with fast-talking, quick thinking black women since the theatre is, for me, one of the few places where we have a chance to get an uninterrupted word in edgewise." Fair enough: Myrick-Hodges' direction is unmistakably consonant with the playwright's purposes. In a modern political context, I thought from an old white man's perspective of the style of Shirley Chisholm, whose fast talking and quick thinking were admired by many Americans, white as well as black. 

View of the homestead suggests prospects for growth.

I saw IRT's first production of "Flyin' West" in 1994, and believe through the haze of a fading memory that the new one is better. The visual elements, including the clarity and smoothness of scene changes (thanks to the use of a revolving platform for different sides of the women's home) were admirable. The distant view of the wooded parts of the prairie reinforced the attractiveness of the setting for the milieu of agricultural fertility and civic peace. Junghyun Georgia Lee's scenic design, complemented by the warmth and variety of Thom Weaver's lighting, made an indelible impression throughout. Levonne Lindsay's costumes helped characterize the very individualized women who drive the action, as well as the two vastly distinctive men. 

The performances stood out for the high degree to which they were embedded in the melodramatic style. Complementing this achievement was the wonderful ebb and flow of audience response that the Sunday matinee attendees displayed. There was almost a well-distributed "amen corner," apt for the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birth. This was a consistently engaged audience, never disruptive but in total rapport with the action. To its credit, I might add semi-facetiously, it resisted the temptation to hiss the villain at the curtain call: Tedder was as deserving of the ovation as everybody else taking a bow.  

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Saturday, January 14, 2023

ISO says goodbye to resident conductor, welcomes back a star soprano

 In the spring after  the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Esquire magazine published a long

Unforgettable, iconoclastic cover

reassessment of the slain president by Tom Wicker, titled as a gentle warning: "Kennedy Without Tears."

This weekend's program as the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra resumes its Classical Series could well be called "20th-century Music Without Tears." The allusion in this case refers to the remaining wariness of the ordinary classical patron about musical modernism: Will I weep with regret that I attended this concert? The resistance is tempered somewhat if there's a commissioned new work on the program, since everyone gets at least a bit excited by novelty.

But what Jacob Joyce chose for his podium swan song to the ISO is unlikely to spur any anguish or gnashing of teeth. Instead, the tears are buried within the music, and that's part of the appeal of Benjamin Britten's Four Sea Interludes, Samuel Barber's "Knoxville: Summer of 1915," and Carl Nielsen's Symphony No. 4 ("Inextinguishable"). The program will be repeated in Hilbert Circle Theatre at 5:30 p.m. today.

Britten and Barber are two of the most eminent 20th-century conservatives. Nielsen, a distinguished Danish composer with 19th-century roots, never embraced the modernist revolution that had taken root by the time he wrote his fourth symphony in 1915. Their strong artistic personalities never succumbed to fatuous ideas of inevitable musical progress.

Jacob Joyce, former resident conductor here

The three works have different ways of acknowledging "the tears in things" (lacrimae rerum) that Virgil cited so long ago in the "Aeneid." In "Knoxville: Summer of 1915," Barber gave permanent concert status to his contemporary James Agee's nostalgia for his boyhood in Tennessee. Nielsen proclaimed that the positive force of life is "inextinguishable" despite the carnage of World War I, in which America had not become embroiled at the time of Agee's idyll. Britten, looking backward from his temporary exile in the United States during World War II, drew upon an 18th-century narrative poem by Thomas Crabbe to fashion "Peter Grimes," the only enduring repertoire opera introduced since that cataclysm. 

It was a thrill to have soprano Julia Bullock back with the ISO after several years. She had made Britten's "Les Illuminations" more intelligible to me than it had been in the signature recording by tenor Peter Pears, the composer's durable life-and-artistic partner. I anticipated similar revelations in her performance of the Barber classic, and indeed she insightfully embodied the American composer's magical way with Agee's lyrical prose memoir. This is a case where another classic recording (Leontyne Price's) can occupy all of a listener's head space available for "Knoxville: Summer of 1915." Bullock made the work her own, blending intimacy and intensity.

Dressed somberly in dark elegance, she entered the stage with a contrasting broad smile, answering the audience's applause with some of her own. She seemed genuinely happy to be here. But every gesture and facial expression during her performance matched the tender depiction of Agee's childhood bliss among family, gazing skyward from the lawn on a star-spangled Southern evening. Where Barber/Agee regard the stars that so few of us see any longer, comparing their brightness to the voices of sleeping birds, the soloist raised her eyes in awe. 

Near the end, Barber follows Agee's twang of  "Who am I?" anxiety indelibly.  On Friday, Bullock

Julia Bullock's return as guest artist is most welcome.

suggested the questioning mood with her hands spread slightly out from her sides, then closing toward her breast as she mirrored Agee's reflection that the deepest issues of personal identity are up to each of us to solve. Her tone and phrasing matched each nuance of the text, and Joyce shaped the orchestral setting with genuine picturesqueness.

The tormented fisherman Peter Grimes of Britten's opera is the source as well as the victim of his own troubles. The tears in its Four Sea Interludes are implied through music that captures both the variability of the ocean on which he and his fellow villagers depend for their livelihood and wrenched harbingers of Grimes' dismal fate. Joyce and the ISO opened the concert with a brilliantly evocative performance; the "Dawn" interlude, with its portentous brass lines welling up in answer to the strings, sounded massive as well as hushed.

 Only some imprecision in the way the violins answered the horns' church-bell imitation marred "Sunday Morning," the second interlude, which faded away marvelously well. "Moonlight" was superb as an eerie prelude to "The Storm," which filled the hall with Britten's authentic representation of meteorological terror and false hopes of calm.

Joyce prefaced the post-intermission performance of the Nielsen symphony with expressions of gratitude to the orchestra and audience for support during his time here. Over the past four years, he has had to deal with upholding the artistic viability of the ISO during the challenges of the pandemic. He did so imaginatively, even when little more than the orchestra's online presence could be sustained.

This concert was an impressive display of his direct and eloquent podium technique and his thorough attention to music of immense variety, much of it in the Nielsen symphony alone. His management of pace and texture (the latter ranging from first-chair string soloing to the immense two-timpanist duel and the general furor of the last movement) was steady and sensitive. The haunting mood of reminiscence the composer permitted himself blossomed in the second movement.  And finally, Joyce and the orchestra remained alert to the work's difficult resolution of conflict in favor of life's inextinguishable triumph.

 Like those teardrops on Esquire's JFK cover, this ISO program uses music both to call up sorrow as an assertion of values and to hold open the promise that it can be wiped away for a time.







Friday, January 13, 2023

Looking around at manmade achievements: Dance Kaleidoscope 'Wonders of the World'

The post-pandemic ache to spread our wings seems to be rising, along with air-travel costs and concerns about safety and scheduling. For those inclined to bypass the hassles, it might be past time for imagination to take over. Dance Kaleidoscope has set for this weekend sojourns to seven of the world's architectural and archaeological wonders, heritage sites for all humanity.

 "Wonders of the World" opened Thursday at Butler University's Schrott Center for the Arts. The show celebrates the cultural landmarks with new or revived choreography by David Hochoy and Stuart Lewis.

Invited to Wednesday's dress rehearsal, I also took in opening night. The tour is both refreshing and mind-boggling. Images of the sites are projected during spoken introductions to each by the choreographers, who are DK's artistic director and associate artistic director, respectively. All "Wonders"  performances are preceded by brief demonstrations of student troupes under the aegis of the company's educational wing, directed by Liberty Harris. The run ends Sunday.

In the main show, each distinctive structure left behind for posterity to contemplate can be approached by the imaginative tourist as a human story, sometimes quite remote. Embodied in dance, movement can suggest how humans interacted with the structure, tell what it meant to people when it flourished, and render artistic impressions of its lines and forms with bodies in motion.

Geometry and texture of Chichen Itza celebrated in "El Salon Mexico"

The last approach seems to have been Hochoy's focus  in celebrating Mexico's Chichen Itza. The stepped pyramid shape, like the ziggurats of ancient Mesopotamia, is imitated in the wealth of geometric postures in the choreography, especially when accompanying the assertive opening melody in Aaron Copland's "El Salon Mexico,"  which lent its title to Hochoy's 2000 work. 

There are continual notions of building rectilinear forms that strive for height set upon and launching from well-grounded weight; one notes suggestions of gymnastics, vaulting and pommel horses. There are astonishing lifts and daring extensions upward. Cheryl Sparks' costumes and Laura Glover's lighting celebrate the sharp angles and decorative density of the structure. When Copland's score becomes frisky, as in the boisterous showcase for E-flat clarinet, Hochoy's sense of humor rises to match the music, without undercutting the cultural significance of the Mayan site as an anchor of vigorous community life.

"Concierto," a Hochoy piece inspired by Machu Picchu in Peru, wisely avoids following a formal model, since the much-visited Inca site was once a community with many activities inferred from what scholars make of its remains. The language is more abstract, lofty, and at the end, ethereal in the gentle, sapling-like sway of three women under soft circles of light. 

Until that finale, the movement seems carved out of recognition of the effort required for a community

"Concierto" suggests the  stability and elevation of Machu Picchu

to build and occupy a place so substantial, remote and isolated until its posthumous rediscovery in the 20th century. The slow movement of Joaquin Rodrigo's Concierto di Aranjuez, which varies in intensity keyed to a solo guitar, accompanies a dance in which any moments of awkwardness (illusory, not the dancers' or the choreographer's) are quickly folded into something graceful.

The emotional core of the Taj Mahal speaks to community only through a highly placed Indian emperor's devotion to his deceased wife. "Niyam," the title Hochoy chose for his one new piece on the program, is a Hindi word meaning "testament." A testament to one romantic union, the building and its majestic environment lie at the intersection of personal and transcendent vanity. The architecture and its setting reach out to posterity in their frank embrace of particular glory. "Niyam" is a rigorously focused work about love transcending the grave and expressed through ghostly and actual representation of the woman.

The glory is embodied in the duo compatibility of Emily Dyson and Kieran King. Barry Doss's elegant costumes speak to the high status of the royal couple, but the naturalness of both the couple's commitment to each other and the survivor's grief are essential to Hochoy's vision, which is interwoven to the elaborate score by Ravi Shankar. The buoyancy of the paired dancing, as well as the widower's  controlled contortions of grief, are set in a context that also echoes the flowing curves in the architecture.

Hochoy's other revived work in "Wonders"  is an excerpt from "Writing on the Great Wall," which takes inscriptions on the Great Wall of China as a cue to give calligraphic effusion and spontaneity to choreography for the company. The piece is typical of Hochoy's keen feeling for structure that still welcomes an almost improvisational zest.

Lewis has three world premieres in "Wonders of the World." He has shown in previous work his penchant for sketching in personality with dances that also serve a larger purpose. "Trinity" deals with  the imposing, gargantuan figure of Christ the Redeemer, a statue which appears to both bless and embrace Rio de Janeiro. Lewis gives the statue prismatic treatment for three dancers, including the choreographer's request that they incorporate their personal views of Jesus Christ into their work. The meaning of the piece's title came under sympathetic questioning during intermission dialogue Friday.

Lewis says that Christian doctrine's view of a triune god was not his intention so much as three aspects of Jesus Christ himself. What I saw from the solos seemed  to present Jesus' humility (Holly Harkins), his blessing and miracle-working function (Paige Robinson), and his identity struggles as both god and man (Adrian Dominguez). The meaning of "trinity" could be taken as the last scene's joining of those qualities in viewers' minds (believing or not) to justify the colossal statue and Lewis' interpretation of it.

With "City of Sandstone," fewer cultural clues have current force. What informed life in the ancient city of Petra in Jordan is obscure. But Lewis responds creatively to the robustness of a civilization that  lay along a trade route abandoned long ago. The choreography displays Lewis' gift for fashioning works that are busy but never cluttered; you never feel that he should have left something out in order to get to the next thing.

Lewis also gets the program's finale, "Echoes in Eternity," which celebrates the Colosseum in Rome through a variegated tribute to that ancient venue of mass entertainment, much of it violent. We see the "bread and circuses" spectacles of imperial Rome, including gladiator combat and its morituri te salutamus gesture of respect to the emperor seated above. The inspiration to represent the site's many victims by one dancer, Marie Kuhns, was striking and heart-stopping in suggesting the martyrdom of early Christians. 

"Echoes in Eternity": Adrian Dominguez and Kieran King as gladiators

The note of triumph reflected in Respighi's suite "The Pines of Rome" rises to a whirling celebration of life, with costume designer Erica Johnston's gossamer textures highlighting the ecstatic dance of the company. This finale is a fanciful variation on the music of "The Pines of the Appian Way," which depicts the return of Roman legions from conquest abroad.

It was such a relief for once not to have to think of triumphant militarism and its subjugation of enemies during Respighi's crescendoing march. Instead, Lewis invites us to feel the music's thrill through a positive, danced indication that life can sometimes have the last word as its most outsized episodes reach toward eternity. And as a whole, "Wonders of the World" proposes that the preservation of cultural artifacts is essential to that hopeful view of human history. Come fly with Dance Kaleidoscope!

[Photos by Lora Olive]


Monday, January 9, 2023

Clarinetist McGill works with a simpatico string quartet in American compositions

Pacifica Quartet is in residence at the IU Jacobs School.

 So much of personal interest to the performers is conveyed by the music and the program notes included with "American Stories" (Cedille) that it's a little amazing not to find the names of Pacifica Quartet personnel anywhere in texts accompanying an inviting new CD by the ensemble now in residence at Indiana University in collaboration with clarinetist Anthony McGill. They are Simin Ganatra and Austin Hartman, violins; Mark Holloway, viola, and Brandon Vamos, cello.

Recent changes in the makeup of the quartet are just part of the reason the name of every performer in this recording should have been included. That aside, what "American Stories" comprises are four works by living American composers, each of them with programmatic content. Richard Danielpour, the  most established of the composers, is represented by "Four Angels," a title celebrating the 1963 sacrifice of four girls in Sunday school in a racist church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. (A piece by jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, titled "Alabama," is a notable precursor of music in tribute to their nation-shocking murder.)

Anthony McGill writes about link to American composers.

'Four Angels" is part lament, part protest.  The moods are effectively balanced. Toward the end, representation of throbbing and sighs dominate a piece that puts the five musicians on a consistently common plane.

 "We are sharing the story of the composers themselves, and ourselves as the performers," McGill explains in a program note. The Danielpour piece differs in that it has no autobiographical resonance, in contrast to pieces by James Lee, Ben Shirley, and Valerie Coleman that complete the CD. 

Lee's "Quintet for Clarinet and String Quartet" comes closest to abstract music, though the work is informed by the composer's interest in pictorial and musical representations of African-American and Native American life. A  ritualistic dance tempo is established by the quartet in "Forgotten Emblems," the first movement, until the clarinet's entrance with a highly decorative melody. Problems of establishing who one is as an American in a minority community seem to be addressed in the third movement, "Alas, My Identity." The questioning nature of Lee's writing here is sealed by his use of phrases that seem to end in midair.  The finale, "Celebrated Emblems," brings forward vivid pizzicato writing in the strings and effusive clarinet trills to eventually achieve a unified climax.

Shirley's "High Sierra Sonata" strikes me as therapeutic program music, in which the  composer's shared experience of recovery from addiction and the healing properties of working in a natural environment provide all the information you need to enjoy the piece. In the first movement, for example, agitation grows quickly as a parade of accents (evoking a practice frequent in Beethoven) communicates the "Angry Secrets" of the movement's title.

Coleman's "Shotgun Houses" commemorates the Louisville neighborhood of her childhood, a milieu she shares with Muhammad Ali, who grew up as Cassius Clay there. I'm not among the admirers of Ali, but Coleman's tribute is picturesque and well-designed.  In the finale, "Rome 1960," the composer creates some clever depictions of Ali in the ring, floating like a butterfly, stinging like a bee, as he burst onto the world stage as an athletic celebrity in the Olympics. McGill and the Pacifica Quartet rise to the occasion here as they do throughout this rare program of new music.