Friday, March 31, 2023

A darker shade of pale: 'Two Mile Hollow' is Phoenix Theatre 's gated community with the locks off

 The caricature is intense and some of the speeches are rat-a-tat word salad. This hit me in the first ten minutes of "Two Mile Hollow" at Phoenix Theatre Thursday night. The characters are flat and brazen, even though there are dips and peaks in their presentation: Actors can chew the scenery like demented termites, and no harm will be done to the overall result. 

Christopher brings from Hollywood his sense of entitlement, along with his personal assistant.




Mikael Burke, a Chicagoan who was one of Indianapolis theater's stars at the turn of this century, seems to be in his element returning to the Phoenix to direct an adept cast, tuned to a high pitch of mania. The basis of Leah Nanako Winkler's excoriating comedy is to have a snooty, excessively self-focused white family played by actors of color in order to present a vivid contrast to an Asian-American woman's anxiety about life and career.

The family is preparing to give up its palatial home in the Hamptons ("Great Gatsby" territory and thus a ripe target for parody), but not without warped sentimentality whenever they recall the place's name. Their  fortune rests on the gold-plated legacy of movie star Derek Donnelly. His widow, Blythe (Milicent Wright), is imperious and bigoted, unable to relate well to any kin except one successful son, producer Christopher (Jay Fuqua). The favorite has offended her by bringing along his "personal assistant," Charlotte (Adrianne Villareal), whose unwelcome exoticism and blocked ambitions earn the family's mockery.

Christopher's older brother, Joshua (Eddie Dean), is a mentally disturbed Ivy League washout unable to get a post-graduate purchase on real life. Their stepsister, Mary (Paige Elisse), is a tortured moonchild  lamenting one failed relationship after another. All she needs is love, to reference the Beatles song that comes to mind when the family shakily reprises "Can't Buy Me Love," which they dimly imagine is a folk song taught to them by a departed maid from Argentina.

The actors are gloriously wrapped up in their assignments, and make all the savage nonsense seem natural. The overall effect of the show is as if an A.R. Gurney play had been rewritten as a graphic novel by R. Crumb. The hyperbolic display of grievances, technically enhanced with panache to underline the satire,  gives the production the feel of a Fringe Fest show spread out over two acts.

White people attending "Two Mile Hollow" are virtually sure to sit there thinking, "I'm not that kind of white person." Of course they will. Yet American whites are probably on a long day's journey into night, heaven help us. The best way to deal with that likelihood at the Phoenix through April 30 might be to see Winkler's play as a commentary on other art, especially the family sorrows so indelibly put onstage by the explicitly referenced Anton Chekhov and Tennessee Williams. 

My allusion to Eugene O'Neill also comes into play. Self-consciousness about past art is essential to the strength of postmodernism. If real upper-class white families were so dysfunctional, they would never have been in charge for so long, would they? That question centers this play's genuine pathos on the "normal" character of Charlotte, and that pathos remains despite her upbeat curtain speech at the end.

Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Kenny Broberg plays a UIndy recital typical of his unique perspective


Kenny Broberg

Launching this week into a return visit to the University of Indianapolis, part of Kenny Broberg 's package of engagements from his victory in the American Pianists Association's  classical competition here, the pianist gave a recital in Ruth Lilly Performance Hall Tuesday night that was crowned by his performance of Nikolai Medtner's "Night Wind" Sonata. 

A complex piece with five connected movements, unconventionally laid out, this presentation could have used some program notes, either printed or delivered from the stage. But the music itself was able to make an impact on its own, and perhaps Broberg is among the artists who feel any sort of verbal detail about a piece deprives it of some of its power, especially when it is unfamiliar to an audience.

A Russian composer of German extraction, Medtner distinguished himself as a pianist from his student days at the Moscow Coservatory. Like his slightly older, more esteemed countryman Sergei Rachmaninoff, Medtner will always have the hyphenated reputation of pianist-composer. Forced into exile by the Russian Revolution, he died in London in 1951. Like Rachamaninoff, he was unsympathetic to modernism; unlike him he hardly put compositional pen to paper unless it was to write for the piano.

Broberg has shown a deep-dyed affinity with Russian music — Scriabin and Medtner in particular — since first becoming known here as a candidate for APA's Christel DeHaan Fellowship a couple of years ago, winning the award as the pandemic receded. Of a recital program in June 2021, I wrote of Broberg's performance of another Medtner sonata (op. 30 in A minor): "The melancholy behind the relentless energy of the mature Rachmaninoff is adumbrated here, and the recitalist projected a sure sense of it."

The "Night Wind" Sonata is dedicated to Rachmaninoff,  and bears an advisory subtitle: "the whole piece in epic spirit." Broberg called up and sustained that spirit in the half-hour-plus expanse of the work. He showed consistency in building a pattern of phrases, often in crescendo, over lengthy arcs. The sonata's formal integrity could be discerned in part because of Broberg's mastery of the long view, which knitted disparate episodes together. Epics do that kind of thing characteristically, as literature illustrates from "Odyssey" to "Paradise Lost."

The pianist's transition into the second Allegro was imbued with an air of mystery. That gift has been evident in Broberg's interpretation of Scriabin, the ultimate in mystery among Russian composers. Broberg's elucidation of the contrapuntal texture that enters in the second fast movement was well-defined. Some of the classical manner of Brahms' variation style was evident in the approach to the Quasi cadenza finale, as it had been in the recital's opening piece. That was the pianist Harold Bauer's reworking of Cesar Franck's "Prelude, Fugue et Variation," an organ work whose final section also represents Franck's salute to the classicism of Camille Saint-Saens.

Among the displays of Broberg's patrician legato feeling for melody was the first part of Ballade in D-flat major, op. 6, by the prolific Amy Beach, an American composer who was admired in her own time (starting in the late 19th century) and has reached renewed popularity in the current quest to diversify the repertoire. The work quickens and thickens — a development to which Broberg sounded fully responsive — before subsiding to a quietly effective conclusion.

The only piece representing the mainstream of piano repertoire was Beethoven's Sonata No. 26 in D-flat major, op. 81a ("Les Adieux"). A rare example of program music among Beethoven's writing for piano, the sonata requires direct engagement with its "farewell" motif and a willingness not to wrench any extra pathos out of the progress of saying goodbye to a friend, missing that friend, and rejoicing in the reunion. That covers the sonata's three movements, and this performance's no-nonsense approach worked perfectly. Yet Broberg made the most of the billowing phrases in the middle movement, and built up suspensefully to the effusive finale. Again, his dynamic control was arresting and well-designed, with mastery over the entire spectrum of piano volume, from whispering to torrential.

[Photo by Lee Clifford]


Saturday, March 25, 2023

Roll up for the Magical Decades Tour: Dance Kaleidoscope showcases the Beatles and dancers' choreography

DK dancers salute Beatles in "Magical Mystery Tour."

Feeling pop culture in your body is a common denominator to help explain its power. Dancers, and those who create work for them, have the luck to transmute the catchiness of popular song into physically expressive art. Who wouldn't want to do that — to picture "The Fool on the Hill" in idiosyncratic motion, or to animate "All You Need Is Love" with embracing gestures of community?

That's the fun and wonder behind Dance Kaleidoscope's "Magical Decades Tour," a show that runs through Sunday on the One America Mainstage of Indiana Repertory Theatre. Choreography by outgoing artistic director David Hochoy holds up the iconic strength of the Beatles, "a rock band from the last century," as Hochoy waggishly put it in remarks from the stage before Friday's performance. 

His tribute mostly revives "Magical Mystery Tour" from 2007, then sets two other Beatles songs in a brief epilogue, framing "Vinyl Vision." That's a collection of works created by company members and introduced at last summer's Indy Fringe Festival, launched with a flavorful, highly spiced stew from the 1960s — "Welcome to the 7 O'clock News," by Sarah Taylor.  The piece, set to three songs, suggests the range of "Vinyl Vision," from light-hearted to disturbing. 

Two pieces with similar titles show some of the range. Holly Harkins' "Three's Company" was a reflective study with a daring admixture of silence around a recording of Dvorak's "Songs My Mother Taught Me" as sung by the soprano Nellie Melba more than a century ago. It was an understated response to a time-tested sentimental favorite for dancers Julie Russel, Kieran King, and Taylor. Making something friskier out of the "eternal triangle" theme was Cody Miley's "3's a Party," incorporating a teasing mixture of attraction and repulsion among a comically gifted trio: King, Marie Kuhns, and Manuel Valdes.

Anti-division: Kieran King and Marie Kuhns  in "Human."

Elaborate statements of the wide world's interruptions of human connection had different means of expression in Paige Robinson's "Unending Waves" and Valdes' "Human." The latter was usefully placed at  the end of "Vinyl Vision." The broad ground it covers, set to an astonishing variety of sound sources, was expansive choreographically, and with its protest credentials well expressed. Still, it struck me, as it did last summer, as being in need of some editing. The intensity and focus remain intact, but might have made greater impact with some tightening.


"Unending Waves" presented a continuum of costuming and props in the form of flowing cloth on and around six dancers, two of them representing a couple separated by distance and circumstance during World War II. The sea-colored fabric vivified the geographical barrier, as the American home front regarded the two theaters of war from an aching distance; the use of Billie Holiday's recording of "I'll Be Seeing You" was especially effective.

In King's "Just the Same," Robinson and Valdes put the time warping of a close relationship under scrutiny, with a deft exhibition of the effects of personal change on each partner, including strong hints that some kind of bond endures in spite of everything. To convey this through dance, where partnering is typically more up close, was impressive. Marie Kuhns designed her own costumes for the seven-dancer extravaganza "Let's Get Loud," to the song of the same title by Jennifer Lopez. The ensemble spectacle included a virtuoso solo riff by Miley that drew cheers.

As for Hochoy's choreography, there's a sense that longtime DK fans are seeing a prolonged farewell tour during his last season, which is also the troupe's 50th. He's often understandably revived his past work, because there are always new dancers to set a piece upon. As executive director Kim Gutfreund told the audience, he has justly had the company's premium donor fund named for him, putting aside the more remote tribute to Isadora Duncan, the modern-dance progenitor whose illustrious name it has carried up to now.

With stunning costumes by Barry Doss, whose imagination is closely matched by another longtime collaborator, lighting designer Laura E. Glover, Hochoy's "Magical Mystery Tour" extends the unshakable Beatles legacy in its own genre. The way the central figure in "Fool on the Hill" is estranged from his community, and undeservedly isolated, got a vivid impersonation from Stuart Lewis. Bringing that character back at the end of the show, a new "Epilogue," Lewis returns in the perpetually lamenting "Yesterday." The costumes are in glowing pastels, however, that evoke the message of acceptance in the company finale, "Let It Be." 

 In the rest of "Magical Mystery Tour," what stood out was the way Hochoy renders the boldness of some aspects of the Beatles. They were honed early in the raucous atmosphere of clubs in Liverpool and Hamburg that form part of the Fab Four legend. The magnetic force of mutual attraction, nicely highlighted by the two men in cowboy garb (Adrian Dominguez and Miley) who zero in on the women (Emily Dyson and Robinson), gives a special buzz to "Something." Juxtaposed, the unmistakable let-it-all-hang-out message of the Sixties sharpens the edge of the song in the work's middle, "I've Got a Feeling." Typically, Hochoy has a way of representing physical and emotional abandon that always finds a thrilling aesthetic form that looks both controlled and spontaneous. "Magical Mystery Tour" is among the pieces by which we will long remember this potent wizard of contemporary dance.

[Photos by Lora Olive]

Friday, March 24, 2023

Lights flicker in the interior castle: Summit Performance fully stages 'The Convent'

Tricks of the mind account for contrasting ways of taking in a play between a staged reading and a full

The Mother Abbess has her act down.

production. When I encountered "The Convent" initially in the summer of 2021 in the outdoor space behind the District Theatre, I filled out what proceeded in front of me by imagining a complete production. At the same time, I worked on simply understanding the play, as one does the first time around, even with straightforward drama free of intellectual puzzles.

Summit Performance Indianapolis has now mounted Jessica Dickey's play in the full form it deserves. This show contains one big surprise whose surprise value fades the second time around. That's inevitable, but that's true with anything worth seeing more than once. What needed explanation when it was new is already sketched out in your memory. To pull a mainstream example almost out of a hat, already knowing how Oscar and Felix stop being roommates in "The Odd Couple" inflects how you process their conflicts along the way.

Unexamined friendship of Dimlin and Bertie will be scrutinized.
Overall, "The Convent"'s gain in a renewed encounter, especially with crucial cast changes, is unmistakable. Plus, everyone is off book, the design elements are in place throughout, and the characters move with appropriate freedom and directness. Opening tonight on the Phoenix Theatre's Basile stage, "The Convent," seen in preview Thursday night, checked all the right boxes under the direction of Summit's founding artistic director, Lauren Briggeman. Performances continue through April 9.

Starting with play selection, women in theater in all aspects of production are the company's focus, fully professional and polished, from the time of its spectacular debut, "Silent Sky," five years ago. 

Presenting the essentials about the 2021 introduction of this play to local audiences, I was nonetheless  extra "thinky" in my response. I saluted the cast's commitment to the emotional charge that runs through the piece. But was it useful to present my slight knowledge of the "nomens" that the participants in the retreat are required to adopt? Was I taking too seriously the cobbled-together structure the Mother Abbess imposes on participants in her yearly convent gathering? Was I hypnotized by how the play treated the perpetually serious business of trying to improve oneself?

I basically thought I was conveying my understanding. On second acquaintance, the nomen assignment and several others add up to farcical excuses for the Mother Abbess' control. As with many leaders in the personal-improvement game, a faux-compassionate agenda may veil pretensions to selfless service.

In addition to calisthenics, free-form prayers and observance of the canonical hours,  the self-styled abbess assigns as "nomen" (name) medieval female saints about whom each participant is charged to learn as much as possible and adopt as a guide for her experience.  And then there are evocations of slaughtered kings, whose sculptured heads open portals to uncensored revelations. As Mother Abbess, Jolene Mentink Moffatt exercised vividly the forcefulness of a character whose own vulnerability becomes increasingly clear, prodded by the most recalcitrant participant, a retreat veteran, Patti (Dekil Rongé). 

Wilma offers her prayer in a group meeting.
In "The Convent," religion turns out to be an apparatus, not  subject matter for our assent or skepticism. Rongé's bristling performance Thursday made that clear, and illuminated the difficulties that each of the other women, all first-timers, have brought with them to a repurposed convent in the French countryside. Like much religious imagery the Mother Abbess exploits, finding the light is a matter of self-education and insight, the light presumed to live within each woman's "interior castle."

The connotations of "interior castle" were clear to me last time, but now the more familiar image of light as being the goal of emergence from spiritual darkness took on new meaning. I applied to what happens in the course of "The Convent," particularly to the Mother Abbess and Patti, something I learned recently about the attraction of moths to bright lights.  This may again be a matter of mental overreach, but I've taken it as a key to this production's emotional impact.

One of the theories explaining moths' attraction to bright lights has to do less with the intense light itself than the illusion of dark places threaded throughout the glow closest to bright lights. These false phenomena, known as Mach bands and common to many creatures' vision, create areas of dark that seem darker than anywhere else in the night sky. The moths appear to be headed toward the light itself, but they could be seeking those darkest places for their own safety, some scientists believe.

Moths to humans — a ridiculous stretch, still too much in my own head? It may only work as a
metaphor, but it turned "The Convent" into a lesson that emotions can take on physical force and that the cliched journey of seeking the light may actually be more about finding a dark place of rest – going directly into the source of negativity as much as one can, and knowing that that's what one needed all along.

This is the spiritual journey that is refracted through the changes wrenched from the repressed friends Bertie (Chynna Fry) and Dimlin (Carrie Ann Schlatter), note-taking goodie-two-shoes Jill (Maria Argentina Souza), cheeky Tina (Shawnté P. Gaston) and Wilma, a real nun in unresolved bereavement (Miki Mathioudakis). The playwright's creation of full-bodied characters out of what could have been a two-dimensional parade of women's issues is borne out by the excellence of the performances.

The humor of the project is robustly evident, but so is the pathos of sometimes out-of-control methods for transcending personal pain. This is a funny play, and putting the medieval trappings in perspective— which the design team of Mara Ishihara Zinky (scene), Brittany Kugler (costumes) and Laura E. Glover (lighting) manages superbly — is a revelatory way to process both the skewed mirth and the cauterizing significance of what these seven women undergo.

[Photos: Ankh Productions]


Tuesday, March 21, 2023

John Bailey has supportive depth from rhythm section in 'Time Bandits"

John Bailey: Collaborative window in "Time Bandits" 

 My previous acquaintance with trumpeter John Bailey on record came on the eve of the pandemic onslaught as he looked backward affectionately at his idol Dizzy Gillespie's whimsical run for president. "Can You Imagine?" was the title for a disc that asked the listener to suppose the honoree's uptilted trumpet might lift up a nation's spirit from the Oval Office.

"Time Bandits" is a more satisfactory CD, much as the charm of "Can You Imagine?" put across its intended point. What's significant about the new recording is the focus on a quartet enhancing Bailey's horn, grounded in the drums of Victor Lewis, a longtime Bailey collaborator, and the stellar support of bassist Scott Colley and pianist George Cables.

You don't have to wait for the last track, "Groove Samba," to be convinced of the fellow-feeling that animates the CD. That Bailey original exemplifies it best: Lewis drives it, but the pervasive swing is shared generously among the four. Ever attentive but not dominant, the drummer puts colorful variety behind his colleagues, right through a long coda.

It's also a treat to savor Cables in this setting. Rapport with the leader is more than sufficiently demonstrated by the duo performance of the pianist's composition "Lullaby," where shared tenderness is not just a laurel to rest on, but a generator of fine lyricism from both players.

Cables is ever inspired by melody, and also varies his style to suit the material. His  solo in the Beatles' poignant "She's Leaving Home" has a bit of "church" about it. Bailey is double-tracked so that the answering countermelody in the original is represented. Lewis underlines the sadness of the daughter's enigmatic departure with pointillist hand-drumming. Cables neatly echoes Bailey's "bye-bye" at the very end.

Similarly, Cables' solo on "How Do You Know?" displays the  same spirit as Bailey's nimble flugelhorn. Cables is at his most florid, without becoming overdecorative, in Bailey's "Ode to Thaddeus," a tribute to another historic trumpet master, Thad Jones. The ballad is an extended showcase for Bailey, displaying great tone on sustained notes and a rich vibrato.

A medium-bounce tempo suits a performance of Jerome Kern's "Long Ago and Far Away," with an effective bass solo crowning the series of solos just before the outchorus. Group collaboration is at its height in "Rose," a quirky twelve-tone piece, featuring a balanced trumpet-piano-bass unison line. 

As curtain-raiser, the disc's title tune has an infectious stop-start energy in its main phrase, partnered with a bridge that eases back to the  "A" section. Everything flows from there so naturally that the listener senses immediately that a lot of good music lies ahead over the ten tracks.

Sunday, March 19, 2023

Sara Caswell's 'The Way to You': Jazz violin is comfortably first among equals

Sara Caswell came from Bloomington to develop her career in New York.
Sara Caswell's current quartet's decade in the performing arena, interrupted as for every musician by the worst phase of the pandemic, has built the internal cohesion and comfort level needed to make "The Way to You" (Anzic Records) a success.

There's not a doubt about the violinist's well-honed rapport with her bandmates: Jesse Lewis, guitar; Ike Sturm, bass; Jared Schonig, drums. At the start and on four of the nine tracks, there are also collegial contributions from the vibraphone of Chris Dingman. Caswell's violin melody on "South Shore" picks up a countermelody from the vibes. That function is later taken up in a different vein by Lewis' guitar. Everything fits, but with each player's individuality intact.

Caswell's sterling command of melody is never far from the surface. Even a simplistic tune like Sturm's "Stillness" opens up without any wrenching effect, inviting a playful solo from the bandleader. The composer's solo is neatly framed by guitar and hand percussion, then builds through a crescendo as the drums heat up. 

Sturm takes another pungent solo on "Warren's Way," a waltz Caswell wrote for her partner, Michael W. Davis. It's always the leader who sets the tone, however. In her solo on Kenny Barron's "Voyage," the violinist displays no over-obvious note choices, but also no straining for effect. 

The evident spontaneity she apparently encourages exerts its force steadily, as in the bicycle-inspired "Spinning." The open-air freedom is underlined by the pulsations of the vibes. Everyone's style is acutely adjusted to the material: The wee-small-hours power of "Last Call," funky and with a heavy backbeat, brings forth more "attitude" than usual from the guitar.

Tempos are flexible when need be, as in the clever slowing of the Latin pulse in "7 Aneis," where the violinist uses double stops, backed by Schonig's accompaniment on brushes. The title tune, Michel Legrand's "On My Way to You," features a guitar solo with just enough sting to represent the presumed pathos of the lyrics. 

The disc ends with Caswell picking up the Hardanger d'amore, a recently devised hybrid violin/viola with five sympathetic strings lending an aura to the sound of bowed strings. The vehicle is the Brazilian master Jobim's "O Que Tinha de Ser," and it ensures that the magic of "The Way to You" will stay in your ears a while.

Saturday, March 18, 2023

French connections: Trumpet virtuoso and guest conductor make them with ISO

Native Parisian Fabien Gabel shed light on French music.

After the relative novelty of having a trumpeter as guest artist, then hearing a scintillating, little-

known work after intermission, how could the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra performance of Stravinsky's familiar "Firebird" Suite fail to be an anticlimactic conclusion?

Amazingly, it wasn't, even though the ISO played the popular work (in one of the composer's other "Firebird" suites) as recently as last summer under another dynamic podium guest, Kevin John Edusei. This weekend, with Fabien Gabel conducting, the hints of modernism were just as evident, but showing an advance on Stravinsky's inheritance from his revered countryman Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.

Stravinsky credited his boldness in creating a later masterpiece ballet, "The Rite of Spring," to the inspiration he received from the music of the Frenchman Florent Schmitt. A suite from Schmitt's ballet "La tragédie de Salomé" occupied a half-hour of the ISO program's second half (to be repeated at 5:30 this afternoon). The original work dates from 1907, and its encapsulation of the heroine's sensuality contrasts with the power-mad Salome depicted in Richard Strauss' near-contemporary opera.

Played after the Schmitt piece, music of "The Firebird"  (1910) reveals that the young Stravinsky absorbed more of the burgeoning modernism of Paris in the 20th century's first decade than is generally credited. Friday's performance of the suite revealed a gift for color beyond the influence of Rimsky-Korsakov and a pictorial richness that depended more on new harmonies and rhythms than upon the Russian heritage. 

From the first, "La tragédie de Salomé" had the insinuating charm typical of French music. Roger Roe's English-horn soloing in the suite's "Prelude" was firmly lyrical yet rightly soft-focused. Schmitt may have derived some of his manner from Debussy, which seemed most evident in the third section ("The Apparitions on the Sea"), but the reigning aesthetic sounded more expressionist than impressionist. The orchestration occasionally registers as if on an emotional Richter scale, a special feature being a gravitas-laden, double-reed saxophone relative called the sarrusophone, played by the versatile Mark Ortwein.

Schmitt's swerve from Debussy emerges mostly in the rhythmic element, "which may be supple or jagged but always commands a principal position" (in the apt phrase of Grove Dictionary's entry on Schmitt). The concluding "Dance of Terror" had coordinated luster as well as galvanic force. Gabel and the ISO indicated indeed that this was astonishingly the "Rite" avant la lettre.

The orchestra played the work as if long familiar with the piece, but it was the ISO's first time Friday. This is the sort of fitness the ensemble regularly puts on show these days. In the current long schedule of guest conductors, the ISO responds well to the best of them. Gabel joins that company this weekend.

That was confirmed by Friday's  "Firebird" suite. No episode was trotted out as if it were merely about color, though there was plenty of that. The French stage tradition of linking dance and drama got vibrantly displayed from the mystery of the opening measures, rising from the depth. 

Later in the suite, there was uncanny tension in the sustained string tremolos between the lullaby and the hymn of general rejoicing celebrating the Firebird's lifting of the evil spell. There was so much good wind playing that I didn't have to wait breathlessly for the balm of Ivy Ringel's bassoon solo in the "Berceuse." Just as it impressed me at the end of the pandemic-shortened '20-'21 season, here it was also soul-lifting. No surprise that Gabel invited  the principal bassoonist to take the first of the solo bows at the end. 

Håkan Hardenberger probed the deceptive insouciance of the Tomasi concerto.

Finally, but definitively in the "last but not least" category, there's the excellence of the weekend's guest soloist: Håkan Hardenberger, a trumpeter of international distinction whose long career includes a host of specially commissioned works. Outside that arena, Henri Tomasi's Trumpet Concerto is a modestly proportioned work of considerable ingenuity. It has nothing of the heft of Tomasi's older contemporary Schmitt, and it also makes its appeal without theoretical baggage. The music often has the debonair quality of Poulenc.

The Swedish virtuoso displayed peerless agility, nimbleness of phrasing and expression (aided by the score's requirement of two different mutes to supplement the open horn) and a full, flawless tone. The audience was told this was the North American premiere of the concerto's original version, so it's not the one you may have heard in one of the few recordings Wynton Marsalis made as a classical trumpeter long ago. 

On Friday, Tomasi's expansive cadenza was notable for its variety and Hardenberger's ingratiating partnership with the snare drum. Coordination with the orchestra was undimmed by such brisk demands as the work's urbane finale, flecked with percussion outbursts. Small wonder there, as Gabel was trained as a trumpeter from the age of 6 (an unusually early start for a brass instrumentalist). Yet Gabel's well-honed affinity as a conductor for the standard repertoire was brought forward at the start of the concert. There he drew from the orchestra the compact significance of the high-romantic Austro-German tradition with a vigorous performance of Brahms' Tragic Overture.

Wednesday, March 8, 2023

The art song refracted through our (and earlier) times: Frank Felice's 'The Beauty of Innuendos'

This new CD (Navona Records) is a vocal showcase for a mezzo-soprano whose work as a

Frank Felice connects with variety of texts.

soloist and teacher is well-known around Indianapolis. Mitzi Westra is closely acquainted both personally and professionally with the composer, Frank Felice of Butler University. 

Assisting the singer, with remarkable insight and taste, is pianist Gregory Martin of the University of Indianapolis faculty. "The Beauty of Innuendos," helpfully subtitled "Four Song Cycles," takes its title from a line in the composition that comes across best to me, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird." This well-known poem by Wallace Stevens uses short, formally varied, and somewhat cryptic stanzas for its oblique perspectives on the creature. Felice seems to respond freshly to each of the thirteen "ways."

Mitzi Westra sings 'The Beauty of Innuendos'
The abruptness and whimsy of the poetry opens up Felice's muse. The effect of natural and man-made phenomena on the mind was always Stevens' concern as an artist. The abstractness of music makes the poetry adapt naturally to musical treatment. The composer doesn't seek to violate the indirectness, even the deft mystery, of Stevens, and this duo sheds the best light on those qualities.

The poet's barest image can generate complementary  music, usually underlined by the piano. Separate, "frozen" chords accompany the line that starts "VI": "Icicles filled the long window / With barbaric glass." The "indecipherable cause" traced by the shadow of the blackbird rounds out the image perfectly. 

Felice's melodic gift blossoms through the gracefulness of Westra's phrasing. Her lower range is particularly expressive: the final stanza haunts my memory: "It was evening all afternoon. / It was snowing / And it was going to snow. / The blackbird sat / In the cedar limbs." The piano coda following Westra's interpretation of those words has the eloquence of Schubert, but properly a little more terse.

"Letters to Derrick" reveals a shift in Felice's music, as his adeptness indicates that a composer needs to set prose different from poetry. It partly has to do with the elevation of Stevens' language contrasted with the colloquial prose in letters by a young friend of baritone Derrick Pennix, who commissioned the cycle. 

The friend has the open ebullience of adolescence, and her frank, friendly style in the letters draws from Felice a distinct mastery of vernacular language, coming close (in a paean to Chicago sports teams, particularly the Bulls) to the pep-song common touch you can find in some songs of Charles Ives. I think a comparison might also be made with the dignified yet informal manner of setting prose by the late Dominick Argento.

"Four Songs of Jennifer Haines" presents emotional entanglements in a style that is more explicit than what Stevens called "the intricate evasions of as." The texts help Felice exercise an approach that irons matters out without oversimplifying. I particularly liked what the duo does with "Cassaundra," an evocation of the sometimes miserable fate that often awaits truth-tellers. 

Finally, with the piano helping to communicate the religious ecstasy he shares with a poet-musician over a great expanse of time, comes Felice's "Four Antiphons of Hildegard of Bingen." The piano writing is more florid, and Gregory Martin is again equal to the task of making it just as expressive as other idioms Felice is comfortable with. As Westra turns to Latin texts, the singing is fully matched to the music's demands: her contralto register is especially thrilling, but her command of the music's whole range is of a piece.

I need to add what may sound like the old song that advocates of vinyl annoyingly warble: The digital technique that has triumphed since the CD came in a few decades ago lends a kind of hard clarity to many instruments, including the human voice. Westra's voice sounds considerably warmer when heard in person. Still, this well-recorded recital displays it well. I would simply recommend attending her concert performances whenever possible. Meanwhile, this recording is a worthy document of her artistry, and a fine representation as well of both the composer and the pianist.


Sunday, March 5, 2023

Neighbors and strangers: Catalyst Repertory puts 'Streetcar' in our faces

Scents and sensibility: Stanley and Blanche confronting over perfume.

Entering Indy Fringe's Basile Theatre between now and March 19 for a performance of "A Streetcar Named Desire" suggests that an experience much more intense and concentrated than you might have expected is about to be yours. 

The compact space of a room with a capacity of 100 is dominated by a two-story set, with seating on three sides of the playing area. Tennessee Williams' prize-winning drama from more than seven decades ago is an unusual choice for Catalyst Repertory, an organization proclaiming its devotion to new work. When a production is this imaginative, however, and takes advantage of new modes of presentation, the departure has a way of underlining the company's mission.

Like most enduring theater, "Streetcar" hits upon aspects of social and personal relationships that cannot be confined to an era. New Orleans right after World War II, even when the story is as cunningly realized as this one is, presents an exotic setting, to begin with. In the grip of the Old South, New Orleans did diversity before diversity was cool. It brought to big-city life the expectations of village neighborliness, working across persistent ethnic divides.

Moreover, Williams' penchant for giving real life a patina (and sometimes a deeper layer or two) of dream life is fully engaged here as he registered a career-forging success. Sex roles are set and reconfirmed as military veterans, overwhelmingly men, come back to American factories and offices; women return to home life and a tendency that even the strongest of them can't resist of being dominated by men.

Casey Ross, the show's director, says in her program note that the suggestion of  walls, interior and exterior alike, balances the evocation of a real world  — a raffish neighborhood in New Orleans' French Quarter that the playwright ironically calls Elysian Fields — against the magic in which the play's distraught heroine places her fragile faith. So the spatial divisions are stunningly incomplete, partly to enable the action to be viewed from three sides, partly to emphasize the tentativeness with which reality imposes itself on the characters. 

Blanche DuBois, sister of the woman sharing a downstairs apartment with her rough-hewn factory-worker  husband, drifts into Stella's life in exile from the family plantation home in Laurel, Mississippi. As seen in Saturday night's performance, Sara Castillo Dandurand played Blanche on a steady plane of distraction and personal fantasy. But she was also attentive to the mood swings of this iconic character, who carries a personal burden of what amounts to sexual betrayal in addition to being overwhelmed by her family's decline and the difficulty of holding on to property as a woman bred to disdain practicality. 

The DuBois sisters reconnect after a long time apart.

Anna Himes as Stella has also had to make the kind of adjustment the times demand, though she has found the love of her life and accepts, with sometimes vehement misgivings, that as her husband Stanley Kowalski expects to maintain the upper hand. One of this production's most impressive achievements is how well, in the performance I saw, the sisters display a genuine bond, despite Stella's accommodation to her brutish husband while the distraught Blanche deepens her reliance on fantasy.

Ian McCabe exerted an animal force in the role. Inquisitive and skeptical about Blanche from the first, Stanley also displays an edgy intelligence that never accepts either sensible or socially imposed constraints. McCabe's performance was explosive; at close range, Stanley's outbursts were startling, and generated vivid responses from everyone around him, chiefly poker-playing friends and the two women he's forced to share living quarters with during one damp, sweltering summer. 

The relationship between Stanley and Stella was given intense passion and detail. I was impressed at how these roles were precisely outlined with a wealth of gestures that matched their vocal expressions. Often you can see even well-delivered roles somewhat vague and busy when it comes to hands and arms. These two performances brought the same authenticity to what I saw as to what I heard.

At the physical extremes, the production is violent and daring, with an adroitness demanded of main characters on a set that, with little exaggeration, seems to have been inspired by the work of M.C. Escher. Kudos to Nick Kilgore's set design for being ultimately intelligible even though it must be constantly challenging for actors to work in. As a result, Kairon Bullock's lighting design necessarily involves more brightness than the play suggests, especially when ruled by Blanche's romance with the dark side of the spectrum. That insistence brings out Williams' most mesmerizing poetry, but safety must be given its own voice in a production with such spatial restrictions.

Mitch tries to deal with the truth about Blanche.

Brian DeHeer was poignant as Blanche's desperate and eventually hostile suitor Mitch,  one of the poker players, a man with his own burden of loneliness. That both attracts and repels Blanche, who insists she's still the desirable belle she always imagined herself as, and once came close to being, on the family estate, the exquisitely named Belle Reve.

As Eunice and Steve Hubbell, Audrey Stonerock and Matt Kraft are mirror images, somewhat more mildly drawn, of their downstairs tenants. They substantiate Williams' portrait of American sex roles, but from the less intense side, as Eunice seems to match her husband's need for domestic control. There seems to be an erotic charge to the spats of both couples, and this production looks that reality straight in the eye and presents it full-force.

The atmosphere is filled in, as Williams designed, by the wafting into Elysian Fields of the Quarter's music, represented in this production by singer Courtney Wiggins and pianist Dustin Klein, who also contributed original music to the show in Catalyst's partnership with Magic Thread Cabaret, of which he's the artistic director.

If this weren't such an assured production, the closeness of everything to the audience could generate more claustrophobia than insight, compassion, and pity. But the production is under such vital control that the story plays out within its own world, despite its energy being alarmingly tactile. 

To take in Blanche's last line "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers" when it's yieldingly uttered only a few feet away can make you feel like one of those strangers, hoping to be kind in turn.

[Photos by Indy Ghost Light Photography]

Thursday, March 2, 2023

Passing the good stuff around: 'Big Band Extravaganza' has cheery West Coast vibe

Doug MacDonald shapes big band around his guitar.

Carrying on the legacy of West Coast jazz, a variety sometimes disparaged in the sway New York has held for nearly a century,  Doug MacDonald is a California guitarist-composer-arranger with a veteran's substantial resume. In "Big Band Extravaganza" (Dmac Music), he has assembled a neat, crackling  ensemble, populated with concise soloists to match the adeptness of his guitar.

The variety and smooth shifts of sound are remarkable. "Ya Know Bill," the tune that ends the ten-track set, features an arrangement that feels like a collective beanbag toss.

Every original chart is fetching and brightly colored; only Gershwin's  "But Not For Me" settles for jogging along nonchalantly without bringing out much of the original. The next track, MacDonald's "Minor Mess," suffers slightly from being in the same tempo, but there's more kick in the arrangement, and the skittering lyricism of Les Benedict's trombone solo is delightful.

I was struck by the phrase-to-phrase changes in texture in the samba "Luz de Amour," which is also typical of "Big Band Extravaganza" in the natural way the texture thins to allow prominence to the leader's unemphatic solo guitar. He gives himself an expansive showcase in "Aventura En Triadas," and takes a substantial solo in "Da Ha." That shows off  the band's comfort in an old-school boogaloo vein, with added individuality in Rickey Woodard's tenor-sax solo.

"Toluca Lake Jazz" opens the disc, titled after a Los Angeles neighborhood. It somewhat resembles the Ray Noble chestnut "Cherokee" and features another notable trombone soloist, Ivan Malespin. "Desert Jazz," perhaps recalling MacDonald's long residence in Las Vegas, has a series of short solos nicely set off in the arrangement. Such touches of local color take place in a context evincing a high comfort level among the total of 18 musicians involved.