Monday, February 27, 2023

Birth of tragedy as the signal of suffering under fate: 'Oedipus' at IRT

Oedipus tries to retain the control Thebes expects of him.

James Still's direction of "Oedipus," Indiana Repertory Theatre's production of Sophocles' tragedy, so powerfully represents the story that you could almost follow all the action without hearing much of what's said. Yet what's said thoroughly reinforces the action, with a mode of delivery that is bold, rhetorically elevated and definitely outside the conversational manner to which most theater grounded in realism has accustomed us.

The cast's gestures and movement (credit also to Mariel Greenlee), headed magnificently in the title role by David Alan Anderson, are continually revealing. The set, showing facades of ancient Thebes fronted by a plaza on which the action flows, has formidable gates to the royal palace at upstage center. 

Carey Wong's design conveys a feeling of timelessness. Sara Ryling Clement's costumes remove the action from anything familiar to us: robes and bare feet allow for the flow to be maximized —no awkwardness in sandals has to be smoothed out. All the awkwardness is in the peril the characters face and the burden of knowledge they come to bear.

Blind Tiresias sees into the king's heart.
Starting with the nobility with which Oedipus is invested as the venerated ruler of Thebes, Anderson's expression is underlined at first by the crisis of plague to which he must find an answer. The answer winds its way backward through his own life, and the bonds of fate eventually squeeze all self-possession out of him. The lesson is that the appearance of human control, even by the most lofty of us, is illusory. Anderson commanded authentically every stage of Oedipus' downward path to knowledge.

It's not a spoiler worth avoiding to say that the self-blinded king's last line responds to the Chorus' reminder that all life is suffering. Defeated in both power and love, Oedipus responds: "Until..." (a line original to the adaptation by David Daniel). The ellipsis will be filled in unanimously by everyone  who sees this play.

The search for truth about a royal murder is driven by the king's curiosity. Anderson's Oedipus impresses upon the Theban community his sincerity about taking the path toward truth in whatever direction it requires. His encounter with Tiresias, the blind seer hauntingly played by Lisa Wolpe, angers him immeasurably. In all eras, powerful leaders resist unwelcome news with fierce exercises of their authority. The scene was given an extra dimension in Anderson's and Wolpe's performance Sunday afternoon. 

The bond between Oedipus and Jocasta, the Theban queen harboring a darker secret than Oedipus has had any reason to suspect, was given full-bodied intensity. Mary Beth Fisher presented a fascinating portrait of the toll a divided consciousness (and conscience) can exact; her exit scene had an immense pathos. 

About on the same level was Sola Thompson, as One from Within, reporting in anguish to her fellow Thebans the death of Jocasta and the self-wounding of Oedipus. Earlier, two rustic bringers of truth to the resistant king were effectively played by Jan Lucas, tremulous and fighting to hold back her secrets, and Ryan Artzberger, cleverly mining the play's thin vein of  humor as a giggling rube with a gift of gab. 

As brother-in-law Creon, Trieu Tran conveyed sardonic ambivalence and a mounting sense of

Jed Feder draws a bow to produce an eerie sound.

triumph as a kind of accomplice to the fate visited upon Oedipus. And among the supporting roles well-filled by Olivia D. Dawson was that of a Priest, linking the royal city's troubles to the community's religious underpinning. 

Essential to the atmosphere of a production so well blending sound and sight was Jed Feder's performance as a percussionist from an array at one side of the stage, in addition to his duties in the Chorus.

This "Oedipus" has some unexpected humor in a few colloquial expressions Daniel has inserted. The most succinct and surprising gets right to the point of the story. The tragic meaning is communicated across the millennia: a member of the Chorus reminds us that "we are all fate-fucked."

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Sunday, February 26, 2023

Isaiah J. Thompson brings APA's Premiere Series to a splendid close

Isaiah J. Thompson and local band mates at the Jazz Kitchen 

Typically, the finalists in the American Pianists Association Premiere Series make a thank-you speech that extends gratitude to a variety of local supporters. But though Isaiah J. Thompson seemed happy to be at the Jazz Kitchen, he made little attempt to flatter anyone besides directing applause to his trio assistants Saturday night: bassist Nick Tucker and drummer Kenny Phelps.

He also made explicit his indebtedness to  his hall-of-fame keyboard heroes, including Thelonious Monk and Horace Silver. Thompson has forged connections to the New York City jazz scene already, and at 25 plays with a keen sense of how he wants to sound and how he wants to use his influences to help mold his artistic personality.

In his second set, he showed off his fresh imagination, taking Billy Strayhorn's "Chelsea Bridge" to new places, not painted in the usual pastels. The pianist started out in a reflective vein, but after two brilliant choruses of Tucker's solo, crossed into a funky neighborhood. Unexpectedly, it worked.

He has an unabashed  interest in delicacy of touch sometimes, as was evident throughout "A Handful of Stars." His treatment was inspired, he told the audience, by the way Nat King Cole performed the song. This gentle manner of treating ballads also came through in his unaccompanied encore, an exquisite "These Foolish Things."

The trio emphasis, the last of the Jazz Kitchen gigs that are  such an important part of the APA competition, concluded with Silver's "Senor Blues." Enlivened with a tricky, forward-plunging rhythmic arrangement, the hard-bop classic was climaxed with Phelps' focused tribute to Latin percussionists who bring the crispness of rims, tom-toms, and wood block to the fore.

Tucker's mastery of walking bass got plenty of exposure in Tadd Dameron's "Our Delight," in which Thompson's playing was bouncy, inspired and delightfully witty. The gift of humor got an original display in the pianist's own "The Cakewalk Dilemma." That  piece, as he explained, recalled the reciprocal mockery, unrealized by the other side, of whites and blacks in the social dancing of the Old South. The performance was both ceremonious and gut-bucket — a wide range, indeed, and covered with mastery by the trio.

A mad rush through "Aki's Blues," representing Indianapolis through the muse of Buddy Montgomery, was a well-chosen follow-up to the set's curtain-raiser, the pianist's drolly titled composition "The I.T. Department." Information technology on a human scale is what Isaiah Thompson seems to be all about.

All five finalists will be back in town in April for the Club Finals and the Gala Finals. At the conclusion, the 2023 Cole Porter Fellow in Jazz will be announced to continue the APA's distinguished jazz-piano tradition. 

[Photos by Rob Ambrose]

Saturday, February 25, 2023

The long view is sunny, the short view is stormy: ISO guest conductor casts light on Mahler and Haas

 Joshua Weilerstein has become almost a familiar face among the roster of guest conductors filling the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's Classical Series schedule. In 2021, he helped the orchestra emerge from the pandemic after 14 idle months, and he has been back on the Hilbert Circle Theatre podium as recently as last April. 

This weekend he brings to a close a stunning two months of ISO concerts with the most life-affirming music he knows (as he said in the pre-concert "Words on Music"): Gustav Mahler's Symphony no. 1 in D ("Titan").

But the conductor's special pride this visit is the North American premiere of an unfinished symphony by Pavel Haas, like Mahler a middle-European Jew, but especially unfortunate in that his later birthdate subjected him to Nazi extinction at 45 at Auschwitz. (Mahler died of a heart condition at 50 in 1911.) From a distinguished musical family, Weilerstein has a special interest in this music in response to the disturbing re-emergence nowadays of antisemitism; three family members of his were victims of the Holocaust.

The current program (to be repeated at 5:30 this afternoon) has just those two works; no guest soloist is

Joshua Weilerstein always makes a firm impression with the  ISO.

involved, a relatively rare phenomenon in the schedule. Friday's premiere gave a large, youthful audience the first exposure to Haas, whose music was composed under forced confinement in 1940-41 and completed in 1994 by Zdenek Zouhar. The composer had been killed in 1944.

At first hearing, the piece clearly expresses the stress of its creation. Weilerstein's helpful oral program notes from the stage certainly helped clarify matters. Haas (with Zouhar's posthumous assistance) asks for a large orchestra, and he uses it with unstinting forcefulness. The brooding start morphs into full-ensemble blasts of assertion. After a diminuendo suggesting exhaustion more than temperate calm, themes representing Jewish and gentile cultures combine in a manner to suggest that the diverse influences belong together, and that in a better world their coexistence would be celebrated.

The second movement moves explicitly into the realm of parody. Suddenly emergent march music at first (no strings allowed!) sounded as sarcastic as any of Shostakovich's marches. The climax of this episode was exciting, and the air clears slightly as a waltz takes over. On the whole, Haas' symphony speaks expansively through a world of pain. It deserves further occasional exposure, perhaps best under the guiding hand of Weilerstein as he continues to be invited to podiums elsewhere.

Understandably, the Haas is effective in a thematic sense as a concert companion to the Mahler "Titan." I'm not sure that it gives the orchestra the right kind of workout to make the most of the Austrian composer's subtlety. On the other hand, as I said in reviewing Weilerstein's appearance here last year, the conductor is "a dependable catalyst for the orchestra's outpouring of vitality," and that exerted its full power Friday night throughout the Mahler's four movements. So what I took as a sharp-angled exercise in straightforwardness might well stand on its own as the best way to approach the work.

Justifiably, perhaps, Weilerstein cleared away a lot of the mystificaiton that surrounds this symphony, much of which Mahler generated and became ambivalent about. Should the way a symphony is described by a composer, with programmatic suggestions as to its significance, remain relevant to listeners? The ISO's program annotator, Marianne Williams Tobias, goes into the composer's hemming and hawing about the composition's meaning. Patrons who read it will be well-armed to take in the "Titan" as a bewitching journey whose twists and turns can benefit from a "let's get on with it, shall we?" approach.

Friday's performance displayed flexibility of tempo in the first movement, so I don't want to suggest anything mechanical about the interpretation. There was also a full spectrum of dynamics. But for those who like their Mahler spiritually juicy, Weilerstein's approach may not have been ideal. It commanded sustained attention, to be sure, and the sharpness of accents, especially in the second-movement scherzo, was extraordinary. Small flecks of color in the parodistic third movement were brightly applied. Ornamental notes in the way the chief "Frere Jacques" theme is treated in the ersatz klezmer episode sounded cheeky and spontaneous. Local color had its place, to be sure.

In the finale, the recollection of the first movement conveyed the right feeling of a needed pause in the headlong rush to the final measures, with the expanded horn section standing and roaring anthemically. The triumphant atmosphere prevails at last; life has been affirmed, though echoes of Shoah remain.

That conclusion brought forth answering roars from the young audience that sounded like something you might hear at Hinkle Fieldhouse or IU's Assembly Hall. The ovation included several bursts of loud acclaim as Weilerstein signaled individuals and sections to stand and bask in the glory.

Sunday, February 19, 2023

Indy Shakes presents Luis Alfaro's "Mojada": American disparagement of Latinos in the crucible of tragedy

Jason tries to explain his life plans to to Medea.

The establishment of identity politics in the arts is full of perils, but searing prejudice against Mexican immigrants to California links well to the power of fate in ancient Greek drama. The link is strong but not untroubled in Luis Alfaro's updating of the Medea legend, "Mojada."

Indianapolis Shakespeare Company, in a further indication of its outreach beyond the sacred monster in its name, is presenting the notable Chicano playwright's tragic drama in the Basile "black-box" Theatre at the Phoenix Theatre Cultural Center through March 5. 

Director Maria Souza, in a moving, personal program note, elucidates some of the difficulty Latin American immigrants face. Often forced by economic and political necessity to seek a new life in this country, they continually suffer marginalization and erasure of any identity they can be proud of. 

The subtitle of the play, "A Medea in Los Angeles," directs us to the connection with ancient theater. Alfaro's powerful version of the old story soars anew. It was dramatized most notably by Euripides and has been subject to an abundance of reinterpretations for over 2000 years since. In the long run, spurred especially by the Roman dramatist Seneca's unfavorable vision of the vengeful witch, Medea has come to be stamped as an irredeemably horrific figure.

Alvaro's take is more in the vein of Medea's heroism. Her murderous pushback against her lover Jason's betrayal can be taken as justified. It pursues its own logic of a tragedy of circumstance, her behavior understandably motivated in a context of no choices. We Americans privilege individual choice, and the rightward drift of our current politics sets it on a pedestal (except in the matter of women's reproductive rights). But Greek tragedy emphasizes that collective values and lack of individual control make "considering our options" (as we like to put it) trivial.

Belief in the power of witchcraft also must be brought forward to tell Medea's story. "Mojada" does that credibly, starting with the opening scene of chant and ritual and the occasional dropping into the bilingual text (projected on a rear screen) of indigenous, pre-Spanish words. Values and practices that precede European contact turn out to be the only resource available to the continually victimized heroine as she faces abandonment in the strange environment of contemporary LA. At the end, sealing the action, one of the production's triumphs of costuming and slide projections holds aloft the legendary significance of overwintering monarch butterflies in Mexico.

Erica Cruz Hernandez rises to the necessary level of retribution in the title role, presented at first as a meek, submissive seamstress, grateful for what she takes to be Jason's loyalty and ambition. Resorting to the magical practices of her background, Medea eventually becomes an avenging angel. Her Jason is also seeking the Golden Fleece, like his straying namesake of old. Christopher Centinaro encapsulated an energetic young man's adoption of the American dream quest. His performance Saturday evening had a driven quality that suited well Jason's readiness to be used and manipulated even as he thinks he is forging a freely chosen path forward.

As a link to the troubled family's inherited values, the elderly Tita, who escaped with the couple and their young son in the dangerous journey across the border, represents a bridge to the family's new life, but with a zest for gossip that enables her to take in Los Angeles life with a jaundiced eye. Isabel Quintero effectively placed the audience in the physical and cultural milieu and provided much of the humor in the first part of the one-act show. 

In the first presentation of her double role, Kidany Camilo, as Josefina, sent sparks of blithe enthusiasm flying about the stage as an entrepreneurial, cart-pushing bread seller. In a more brazen, less calculating way than Jason, she also is under the spell of the American dream, while her illusions about freedom loom even larger than his. She also made much of Josefina's contrast with Armida, Jason's upwardly mobile boss, a woman who has fully discarded old-country ways; her portrayal was chillingly hard-bitten and ruthless. As for the fifth member of the cast, Jasmin Martinez fulfilled the basic function of the boy who converts to American ways most comfortably, but the performance was hurt by near-inaudibility at times. 

Chicano identity deserves full exposition on the stage when it is handled with such sympathy and sometimes excruciating detail. The problem lies not so much with the acting and the production, which is richly designed scenically and in costuming, sound, and lighting, but with processing what this Medea treatment might mean.

The title signifies the disparaging term "wetback," so the stigma faced by Mexican immigrants into the lower end of the American economy is clearly signaled. The question arises, then, as to the three-dimensional significance of these lives. They are thoroughly in thrall to materialistic social structures. All societies are dependent on hierarchy and tiers of entitlement and subjection, and these characters seem almost interchangeable with those that could be called up from countless other real-life stories. Their lives are in some sense at a level of abstraction from social conditions, bleeding away their individuality. Karl Marx would have understood this poignant study of what he called "alienation."

It is to Alvaro's credit that he has shed light on one people's particular struggle to overcome  disadvantages imposed upon them. Using an ancient story very much governed by severe stresses involving exile, betrayal, banishment, and magic as a bearer of retributive justice brings a fresh perspective to the perpetual tendency to organize life in hierarchies of power and wealth. "Mojada" powerfully embodies the absorption of other cultural realities into the American way of life at its least attractive. To its benefit, that way of life may be about to change in a massive demographic shift. Yet the tendency toward built-in social inequality is unlikely to go away.

Saturday, February 18, 2023

Principles matter, principals matter: ISO continues its surge through Classical Series stretch

Jennifer Christen has been ISO principal oboe since 2012
If you were to contemplate the history of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra over the past dozen years or so, a comparison to the trials of the young lovers in "The Magic Flute" easily comes to mind. Significant trials of character and persistence were the norm. The only thing missing in the real-life dramas was adhering to vows of silence. Except for the pandemic, these were noisy years.

In no particular order, here are the crises that the ISO has come through: a wrenching switch of music director; the new music director's youth emphasis in hiring, which resulted in a few successes and a few errors, including established principals who felt threatened; labor-management strife that climaxed in a lockout, and the generalized  trial of COVID-19. A further challenge that was certainly influenced by those just named has been financial stability and audience loyalty.

Just as Tamino and Pamina had to keep faith through trials of fire and water and tests of mutual devotion, the ISO's crises have had an intriguing variety. To go immediately to one of them (new hires), and to cast the analogy to Mozart's opera aside before it breaks down totally, is a personnel change that bore fruit immediately: the hiring of Jennifer Christen as principal oboe in May 2012. 

Christen had provided many bright spots in every oboe solo in ISO repertoire (and there are many of

German conductor Christian Reif makes ISO debut.

them) when she was customarily first-chair. So the extended spotlight she was scheduled for in the pandemic-interrupted season of 2019-20 has been highly anticipated. It is shining on her finally in  this weekend's Classical Series performances of Richard Strauss' Oboe Concerto, the second of which is this afternoon at 5:30.

In the first of them, Friday night, under the baton of guest conductor Christian Reif, she was as soaringly eloquent as expected. The mastery of Strauss' long, floating phrases — which was so evident in the defining oboe solo in "Don Juan" two weeks ago — was consistent and fully supported. The tone blossomed continually, as if nothing could come along to diminish it, including the stressful need to find moments for breathing.

The second movement "Andante" eased up on the unrelenting demands of its predecessor. Shorter phrases allowed to emerge Christen's skill in giving shape to each of them. Here and in the finale, the soloist unfailingly exploited how lyrically the phrases peak just enough to stand out while also linking to their neighbors. Christen's playing of cadenzas in the second and third movements exemplified virtuosity at its smoothest. The orchestra's accompaniment was sustained under Reif's explicit, big-gestured management. 

Augusta Read Thomas' "Sun Dance" shines.

In the second half, another delayed treat  — this one in a series of commissioned pieces intended to respond to a specific Beethoven symphony — is on the program. Special celebrations all over the world in celebration of the composer's 250th birth  anniversary were either postponed or canceled, thanks to COVID. Now ISO patrons can hear Augusta Read Thomas' "Sun Dance" as a fresh-faced companion to Symphony No. 6 in F, op. 68 ("Pastoral").

The new work, about which the composer is keen to promote understanding (and did so in remarks from the stage), is a six-minute display of ensemble adeptness and full-palette use of orchestral color. The spectrum is constrained by design in that the composer was asked to duplicate Beethoven's scoring; she made a couple of exceptions, incorporating piano and, with particular flair, percussion. 

The world premiere, dedicated to the memory of British composer-conductor Oliver Knussen (1952-2018), enchanted throughout. It had the blaze and subtlety of sunlight in its various aspects, and it certainly danced. It made good use of  brief brass solos and, toward the end, featured a well-designed showcase for the percussion section. 

The notably fervent devotion to natural phenomena — and a rural community's place in partially domesticated nature —  is of course a distinguishing characteristic of Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony. From the first movement on, Reif conducted some brilliant passages of acceleration, and he was insistent enough on the rustic tone-painting of the third movement that he had orchestra members supplement it by stomping their feet to underline the accents in the country-dance passages. 

The storm music had good definition as well as the scary energy of threatening cloudbursts, and the  subsequent process of calming was convincingly managed. There was sincerity as well as proper indulgence in Beethoven's detailed expression of the townsfolk's pious gratitude for having come through safely. Coming through safely, but with more than a dash of excitement, seems to be what the ISO is all about lately.



Thursday, February 16, 2023

Looking back and looking around: Regina Carter brings jazz violin to IVCI's Laureate Series

Regina Carter is among the foremost violinists in jazz.
In the second half of her appearance at Madame Walker Theatre Wednesday night, Regina Carter brought to her concert under the aegis of the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis' Laureate Series a strong interest in her heritage on both sides of the hyphen in "African-American."

A contemporary African piece, introduced with free-floating modernist sonorities from the violinist and her musical partner, Xavier Davis, yielded to an original meditation, including spoken text, titled "Path of Construction." That brought attention to the demolition of African-American communities for freeways linked to interstate highways, thus easing transit from urban centers and often benefiting suburban commuters the most. Inner-city destruction is left in its wake.

That process, begun in the 1960s and carried through to the end of the century, affected  many U.S. cities, among them the violinist's hometown of Detroit, where she was born in 1966. "Urban renewal," a watchword of policy in that era, was  bitterly called "urban removal." Sometimes new freeways were less the cause than policies privileging new facilities, such as IUPUI in Indianapolis, With the end of segregation, that cast Indiana Avenue into the shadows as a black cultural center.

A historic gem of that community, the Madame Walker Legacy Center, remains to attest to that legacy.  "Path of Construction" reflects Carter's longstanding interest in both family history and racial history. She is a musician whose artistic tentacles naturally extend beyond music. With Davis, a sympathetic partner, she folded her political message into an expansive musical statement. 

Elsewhere in the concert, her affectionate focus on musical heritage came to the fore. Childhood memories of Hollywood's "The Sound of Music" seem more responsible for her treatment of the song "My Favorite Things" than such jazz gatekeepers as the John Coltrane version. For one thing, she didn't delay the latter part of the tune as the saxophonist did in his landmark 1961 recording so that he could go full-modal. And she kept the sweetness of the original intact, channeling the Julie Andrews manner.

Carter has a secure admiration for melody, as was clear in a couple of oldies she and Davis performed. "Judy" is a little-known Hoagy Carmichael song that Carter linked to the early career of Ella Fitzgerald. At a ballad tempo, the duo's version made a fine companion to a recording of Carmichael singing it. Another such link to an important singer was "I Can't Believe That You're in Love With Me," which Billie Holiday recorded in 1938. Carter and Davis took the tune at a brisk tempo, whose infectious zest was immediate and well-fused in this performance.

The coordinated timing of the duo was further demonstrated by an appealing swinger the saxophonist Johnny Hodges wrote long ago titled "Squatty Roo." It was so appealing that audience handclaps broke out in tempo and continued probably too long during the performance. 

Here and elsewhere, Carter displayed precise intonation, deliberately including many teasing portamentos toward a destined pitch. Her vibrato varies expressively. Sometimes there's next to none; elsewhere it's practically throbbing. She spaces out spates of virtuosity judiciously.

There was a good demonstration of her best qualities on a devout journey through Duke Ellington's "Come Sunday," which concluded oddly with a visit to "Danny Boy." Davis' solo amply indicated the influence that early employer Betty Carter (1929-1998) had upon his style: elaborations tended toward the florid and even oddball. Throughout the evening, Davis' often caressing style at the keyboard tended to thicken in some places. He had to find a way through his own underbrush; tangled phrases would sometimes get straightened out in the nick of time. It was both fascinating and mildly troubling.

The set ended with a fresh groove applied to the Beatles' "Can't Buy Me Love," just after Carter surveyed the audience to locate concertgoers born in the Sixties, as she was. From first to last, the violinist seemed to enjoy relating to the larger world.

Saturday, February 11, 2023

Two strong flanks of 'Wild Horses': Constance Macy's impersonation of narrator and her memories

As narrator of "Wild Horses," Constance Macy reflects.

People who visit both versions of Phoenix Theatre's new show will have the same delightful task of sorting through their impressions that I did. "Wild Horses," a play by Allison Gregory focusing on a woman's look backward to a life-changing episode of her early adolescence, has two much-admired local actors in alternating performances. The task is to figure out how much your responses to the marvels Jen Johansen and Constance Macy accomplish in the role may depend on whose version you saw first.

Who sheds more light on a particular episode in this fast-moving, close-to-heartbreaking comedy? And whose performance may stand out because first impressions are inevitably stronger than subsequent ones? On the other hand, second impressions that follow soon afterward bear the enviable weight of confirmation or revision of the initial exposure.

To give just one example, on Saturday night I was struck from the start by how Macy brought out the unnamed narrator's self-conscious tone in opening her 80-minute monologue. Those first few minutes carried the burden of how best in middle age to share old, often painful memories with strangers. The style of address is essential to storytelling, and that understandably was not as vivid to me six days earlier in Johansen's first scene, when the need for exposition study dominated my attention to style. 

But, I quickly remind myself, last night I had the advantage of knowing the harrowing, uproarious story that was about to unfold. I was likely to see notes struck in how Macy launched her version that might have slipped past me when I was just getting to know the narrator in Johansen's portrayal. Let's agree that when the acting is this accomplished, there's no easy way of avoiding the question of priority. It's a little like trying to figure out the importance of birth order in a family (and that, by the way, is among the issues that play out in "Wild Horses"). 

Both players have a history of delivering strong accounts of one-actor shows that involve mimicry spread over a wide spectrum of behavior and character. That serves them well here. The detail and precision of Johansen's impersonation of others in the narrator's life remain glorious in recollection. Macy's command of that aspect was also well-drawn, but I have to raise up in particular how well she managed the dynamic of the two sisters (the narrator and "the favorite," as she bitterly refers to Carrie Ann) in a couple of dialogues. The current between them runs strong, though in danger of short-circuiting due to the frayed insulation of the family bond.  The electricity in these crucial conversations — one funny, one searing —  never dimmed Friday night.

My second viewing of the play gave me more opportunity to admire the show's inspired technical and design aspects. The four elements the ancients recognized figure in the story: Earth, air, fire, and water strut their stuff in sound (Jason Tuttle), projections (Katie Phelan Mayfield), and lighting (Laura E. Glover and Kairon Bullock). The stage environment is a grove of fragmented towers composed of squares resembling wooden shake roofing (Zac Hunter). That material gets a mention in the script when the narrator recalls a wildfire — a phenomenon that we've all learned is a constant in today's California environment. Except for some projected changes of shade and texture, they carry the same cedary color throughout.

Stunningly, at the end of the show, the shake shingles are made gorgeous as if refracted through a prism. Why do we see the wood tones suddenly brightened? It's because the narrator, delivering an assessment of the outcome of the girls' foolhardy adventure, comes close to transfiguration. I've seen this in some previous Macy performances, and there I was again, saying to myself "Uh-oh, here it comes — get ready to feel melted. The ushers may have to reconstitute me at the end. I will be a puddle in Row C."

There are many shows in which the main character changes; in a few of them that's not enough if a performer can't layer a transcendent shift of impersonation on top — "King Lear" is a notable example, which is one reason you so seldom encounter a satisfactory portrayal of the title character. 

"Transfiguration" is an odd, dangerous word, often theologically entangled. I can think of several examples in art where it's specifically invoked. The last stanza of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" opens with these lines: "In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea, with a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me."

Here's where Julia Ward Howe casts aside the military ferocity of the preceding verses. John Updike borrowed the first phrase to title one of his novels, in which transfiguration is essential. Passing on to a different plane of existence is implied by the Richard Strauss' tone poem "Death and Transfiguration." Death doesn't have to be the pathway, however, as Arnold Schoenberg made clear in "Transfigured Night," a chamber-music piece with a program in which a man forgives his partner after she announces she's carrying another man's child. Thus their love is transfigured. In homelier fashion, rootsy jazz pianist-singer Mose Allison passed the idea into a stark contrast of country and city life in the concept album that launched his career: "The Transfiguration of Hiram Brown."

What will most stay with me about Constance Macy's version was a feeling I'll never shed that she  believably gave the narrator an almost separate persona at the end — linked to teenage experience and a mature woman's  recollection of it, but doing more than wrenching retrospective meaning from it. She made it seem as if the narrator had fashioned a whole new person, a separate self, out of her torturously achieved wisdom. It was incredibly moving. There's nothing short of the word "transfiguration" that seems to fit what I saw in Macy's performance. You don't encounter that very often on the stage, and almost never in real life. 

[Photo by Indy Ghost Light]


Sunday, February 5, 2023

One flank of 'Wild Horses': Jen Johansen shows mastery in one-actor show

Theater productions with a cast of one face skepticism from their potential audiences. "I like the stage for interaction among characters," the resistant playgoer may think. "Does theater really work if your attention is focused only on one actor through the whole thing?" 

Well, I don't know if it's just a trick of my memory or stems from my responsibility as a theater reviewer, but some of my most vivid recollections of local theater over the past dozen years come from one-actor experiences. I particularly recall the "Going Solo" series Indiana Repertory Theatre had going for a couple of seasons in 2010 and '11. That's germane to my eager anticipation of "Wild Horses," the current production at Phoenix Theatre.

Unusually and attractively, because I retain an indelible fondness for its IRT predecessors in "Lost: A Memoir" (Constance Macy) and "The Syringa Tree" (Jen Johansen),  both of the women starring in those shows now divide performances of Allison Gregory's play between them.

I will catch up with Constance Macy's interpretation next weekend. Saturday night I caught Jen Johansen's version in its premiere performance. The show is directed by Lori Wolter Hudson, and of course the excellent production team, alert to every nuance and sensory reinforcement,  is the same throughout the run. There must be a fascinating story behind how offstage best friends who also have a rich performing history together will manage the inevitable comparison of their performances in the same show in the same production.

As narrator of "Wild Horses," Jen Johansen looks back on early adolescence.

Johansen expands upon the gift for mimicry she brought to "The Syringa Tree," which is also a coming-of-age story, but one in which awareness of a girl's milieu comes more slowly, as a privileged white South African learns something about the sharp social divide she benefits from. In "Wild Horses," the mimicry covers a wider range and has to fall into place at a more rapid tempo. The nameless heroine of the Phoenix show is drawing upon a set of specific memories from her early adolescence beyond the suburbs in south-central California in the '70s. 

The precision and detail of Johansen's performance Saturday was always linked to bringing into focus the delayed vitality the girl grows into after cobbling together a messy way out of a family crisis and social aimlessness. That said, one of the less welcome aspects of seeing just one actor in front of you for 80 uninterrupted minutes is a distracted admiration for the preparation that must have been necessary. 

I say "less welcome" because the more you're tempted to focus on the "wow!" factor in a solo performance, the less you're fully engaged with the story. The perplexity is that you still feel wholly involved in the story when it's so expertly conveyed, as I did. But the threat of being distracted by the wonder of it all remains. I'm thinking of the anecdote about a famous violinist who once said that whenever a post-recital backstage compliment would run along the lines of " 'you must have worked really hard on that,' I knew I had given a bad performance."

Fortunately, Johansen projected a keen sense of spontaneity and freshness in every line delivered and posture assumed. Each gesture, vocal inflection, facial expression was fine-tuned. To mention just one, as the narrator instructs the audience not to share a secret, Johansen's eyes sweep laser-like across the theater: a quadruple "take" and dead-serious warning. It's a great laugh line that is not a line at all.

This kind of effectiveness pours out in a reminiscence that brings before us the girl's parents, friends and a couple of brothers starkly different from one another in how they handle teenage obsessions and conflicts. In a nutshell, contrary to the opening of the Rolling Stones song of the same title, childhood living is not easy to do — not when your family is dysfunctional and the rest of the world surrounding you is too mysterious and even threatening to take into account comfortably.

At length, the horses come into the story almost accidentally, although we know from the start the narrator is hoping to win the top prize in a horse-naming contest with which a local radio station is trying to cement the teen demographic it aims at. Spoilers abound here, because every twist of the story involves a revelation that "Wild Horses"' audiences deserve to be surprised by. I'll just point to the fact that horses are a well-ridden symbol of freedom for Americans. 

Equine symbolism is rich in both high and popular culture to the point of cliche. A much-anthologized poem from this play's era — "The Blessing" by James Wright — concludes a chance rural encounter with a couple of ponies, much gentler than what the girls in "Wild Horses" go through, like this: "Suddenly I realize / That if I stepped out of my body I would break / Into blossom."

Suffice it to say the horse-enabled "blessing" in this play, though freighted with likely disaster, is essential to the triumph "Wild Horses" presents after its wild ride through hilarity and despair. Becoming a self-declared "freedom taker," not a freedom fighter, is the blossoming the mature woman knows she earned long ago. Johansen conveys that emergence convincingly because her performance has put across so well the funny/sad turmoil required to get there.

Saturday, February 4, 2023

Pushing the envelope in masterpiece sweepstakes: ISO plays Mozart, Strauss, Beethoven, and Dennehy

 Matthew Halls' previous guest appearances with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra (covered on this blog since 2014) have indicated he brings plenty of charisma to the podium and a wealth of deep investment in displaying whatever the music most essentially reveals.

Matthew Halls has conducted the ISO several times in recent years.

It was no surprise, then, how revelatory his first full concert this time around turned out to be. He has the benefit of guiding an orchestra that's now capable of  extensive displays of youthful technique and coordinated energy.  On Friday night, there was sufficient evidence that the resumption of the Classical Series in the first two months of the new year is presenting an ensemble ready for the inspiration and guidance of its new music director, whoever that turns out to be.

The demanding program found the hearteningly large audience at Hilbert Circle Theatre vociferous in
approval. The guest soloist, Joyce Yang, held it spellbound in her performance of Mozart's greatest piano concerto and her deftly chosen encore, "Nocturne" from Edvard Grieg's Lyric Pieces.

She introduced the encore by noting how well the four-minute piece seems to suspend time. And the way she played it followed suit. To be sure, her entire manner with both Grieg and Mozart exemplified mastery of one of a pianist's most vexing, necessary tasks: counteracting the quick decay of each struck key by communicating an unerring sense of its connection to the next note and its links to others to build coherence. The weight and shape of every phrase she played showed a consciousness of context that resembled song.

Joyce Yang won the Van Cliburn competition's silver medal in 2005.

Time's immediate effect on sound, unless prolonged by such old technology as the sustaining pedal, lends poignancy to the piano — especially in slow, lyrical writing. The Larghetto movement of Mozart's Piano Concerto in C minor, K. 491, was enthralling. Chamber-music textures brought to the fore the ISO's marvelous current contingent of wind players in dialogue with the soloist. Yang's articulation was immaculate, and her use of the pedal properly restrained. 

The outer movements sparkled.  It's hard to overstate the impact of the first movement. One commentator justly notes that it "reaches heights of Sophoclean grandeur." Comparison to classic Greek tragedy didn't seem out of  place, the way Yang and Halls were of common mind about its meaning. In terms of fire and focus, her cadenza logically looked ahead to Beethoven, treating the theme motivically at first and ruminating productively even in the passage work.

The march characteristic of the finale was subtle to begin with, thanks to the evident rapport of orchestra and soloist. When the variations blazed forth all around, subtlety gave way to the stern business of martial vigor. The shift of meter to 6/8 was finely woven among piano and strings as the concerto ended grandly.

The concert opened magnificently with a performance of Richard Strauss' groundbreaking "Don Juan." Everything in this thickly scored tone poem was clearly defined here. The piece's manifold contrasts of mood flowed one to another in a full portrait of the passion-driven hero. The horns soared in the familiar bravura episodes, and the violin solos displayed concertmaster Kevin Lin's dependable mastery. 

The love theme given to solo oboe, touted by Halls in his "Words on Music" remarks, more than lived up to expectations in Jennifer Christen's ardent, billowing performance. Small wonder that right after the piece ended tenderly with the hero's death, Halls dashed off the podium directly into the orchestra to shake her hand and have her take a solo bow. I feel certain that the ISO's "Don Juan" Friday night was something any American orchestra would be proud of.

In the second half, a commissioned piece by the Irish composer Donnacha Dennehy got its world premiere. "Brink" was conceived as a tribute and response to Beethoven's Symphony No. 8 in F major, which followed. The new five-minute work (which had been due for a premiere in 2020) indeed takes the orchestra to the brink, with relentless rhythmic energy given prismatic exposure through shifts of color and texture.  

These are never indulged or prolonged, but the variety had to come through as more than din in the course of presenting "this gnarly beast" (Halls' description). The intense focus of "Brink," as though its pulsating strength can barely be contained, called to mind a much different work in which the composer steadily holds himself in so that self-imposed limitations remain absolute. That's "The Mysterious Barricades" by Francois Couperin, a 1717 harpsichord piece that generates excitement through its resolve to run headlong into prescribed limitations of range and expressive outreach.

There followed the piece to which "Brink" pays tribute: The  Beethoven Eighth privileges joy and a rare sense of humor that seems free of both irony and gruffness. The control Halls and the orchestra achieved never made the liveliness appear under too much constraint. The so-called minuet kicked up its heels in the manner of the country folk Beethoven depicted in his "Pastoral" Symphony (No. 6), which will be heard Feb. 17 and 18 in the ISO series. 

"Allegretto scherzando," the heading of the second movement, justified the fast tick-tock pace Halls chose, through which Beethoven poked a little fun at the metronome, at the time a new contraption. The call-and-response features, pitting strings against winds, were neatly brought off. Perhaps inevitably, given such a demanding program, there were slight signs of fatigue in the third and fourth movements. Nonetheless, the fitness of the ISO, seemingly for all tasks put before it, remains amazing.

Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Mark Ortwein's 'It Was Time' is a showcase of reedman's extraordinary range


Main axe: Mark Ortwein plays the bassoon.

The ultimate balance of Mark Ortwein's recorded calling-card as a jazz musician is reflected in the title. On the one hand it's a tribute and a gift of closure on his late mother's life, on the other a well-considered pun on the bebop classic "Now's the Time." The music itself on "It Was Time"  covers a wide range: You don't expect to get an updated version of the chestnut "After You've Gone" roasting on the same open fire as "Bigfoot," the spine-tingling final track.

Ortwein, assistant principal bassoonist of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, has been known for exhibiting his jazz chops in small groups ever since his arrival here in 2002. His electrified bassoon has most conspicuously been featured for a mass audience playing the national anthem solo for the Indiana Pacers, and it is a substantial part of his performing profile outside the ISO. 

On "It Was Time," he ranges across the whole saxophone family (apart from such bizarre outliers as the contrabass monster): soprano, alto, tenor and baritone, and of course  some well-mixed, plugged-in bassoon. That instrument holds its own with his son Olas Ortwein's guitar on "Bigfoot,"  Olas' composition. That's just part of the studio wizardry on this album, starting with Frank Glover's arrangement of the title tune. Prominent as a clarinetist-composer, Glover is heard on piano here, with the bandleader picking up another reed instrument, the bass clarinet.

As a performing impresario, Ortwein plays with a wide variety of musicians. The Caribbean vibe is nailed down by keyboardist-percussionist Pavel Polanco-Safadit, multi-tracked, on "Pepperoni Grande Con Queso Mas," a tasty original by the bandleader. 

Among the other guests, all up to their specific tasks, is award-winning vocalist Josh Kaufman performing one of his specialties, "I Can't Make You Love Me." Whatever and whomever he chooses on this disc, Ortwein's taste is unerring. 

For instance, you can study a few different drumming styles just in his choice of men behind the kit: Carrington Clinton, a master of funk drumming, puts crucial support behind the double-tracked tenor and electrified bassoon on John Coltrane's "Lonnie's Lament." Johnny Concannon lends a vital rock style to "Bigfoot," a piece that won me over despite my aversion to rock: the groove is relentlessly heavy, but it's important to note there's nothing simple-minded about the piece's melodic line.

ISO percussion colleague Craig Hetrick has a jazz side equal in comfort and competence to the bandleader: he heats up impressively on "Basso Bossa" (by another ISO colleague, Peter Hansen, who plays bass on this track). Longtime sideman John Fell lends some fancy guitar here, and his inventiveness is essential to several other tracks as well. (Nevertheless, "Basso Bossa" is the one piece that goes on too long, it seems to me, though it's clear everyone is having loads of fun with it).

The clever contributions of trumpeter Kenny Rampton to "After You've Gone" and "Bigfoot" are delightful. Gary Walters' amiable, flexible piano style is the perfect complement to Ortwein's approach to the alto on "Lunar Love." It's typical insofar as Ortwein plunges to the heart of each of his instruments' character and places them all in  revealing and copacetic settings — from players to arrangements and the mixing and mastering of Jeremy Radway. 

"It Was Time" indeed to have this musician's spectacular self-portrait out in durable form.