Saturday, April 29, 2023

Augusta Read Thomas: A rare focus on a living composer's new music highlights this season

Twice this season the composer Augusta Read Thomas has come down from Chicago to hear new

Two major works by Augusta Read Thomas have been heard this season here.

works performed at Hilbert Circle Theatre.  This weekend it's the turn of "Toward a Secret Sky," a cantata commissioned by the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir, which is giving the premiere in two performances, along with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. The second is at 5:30 p.m. today.

The ISO in February gave the local premiere of her piece titled "Sun Dance," co-commissioned with other orchestras. Indianapolis audiences have thus had ample opportunity to become familiar with Thomas' bright, detailed, sometimes ecstatic manner of composition for large forces. In "Toward a Secret Sky," using texts from the medieval Sufi poet Rumi, Thomas has come up with musical settings, in nine movements without interruption, that strive to capture a spirituality reassuring everyone of its permanent, universal availability. Love is the keynote, the self is a powerful vehicle to transcendence, and what the composer calls "cosmic grace" made a unique communication of such a message available to her, and thence to all attentive listeners.

As heard Friday night, the main challenge to such attention was scoring that forged a pervasive unity of chorus and orchestra, as if the singers were another section of the orchestra. The well-trained choir, under the guidance of Eric Stark, also the conductor of these concerts, seems to have mastered the difficulty of its assignment. But the massed sound allowed relatively few lines to come through clearly.

High resonance shone in "O day arise! Shine your light, the atoms are dancing." How could it not, with such a text to elevate the music? "I Tell You: Suns Exist," the second section, picks up the dance imagery, with fanfares to highlight the exaltation. It soon became a rare joy, as well as a landmark, to hear such clear lines as "Don't ask anyone about Love, ask Love about love." When the women began the next section with the soft insinuation of "I am an atom," I began to count milestones in this high-flown journey. 

The orchestra reinforces the need to take the long view, but the parade of details had one longing for pregnant pauses, where words would take precedence. Rhythmic and textural variety makes distinction between the sections, which helps listeners track the progress. In the middle, Thomas has fashioned her own apotheosis of Arnold Schoenberg's sound-color melody in the 1912 "Five Orchestra Pieces," in which changes of timbre sustain and subtly alter a long line. She's a virtuoso of this sort of thing, and the orchestra made a proper spectacle of it.

Max Beerbohm once wrote a parody of late Henry James called "The Mote in the Middle Distance," in which a brother and sister try to resist the temptation to peek into their Christmas stockings prematurely. Well-wrought concentration makes James' exquisite prose difficult to negotiate, but fun as expertly parodied by Beerbohm. While it was romancing the sublime, Thomas' piece maintained a similarly convoluted focus on minutiae.

 In addition to brief solos elsewhere in the orchestra and some arresting instrumental combinations, the four percussionists are crucial, as they were in "Sun Dance." They are mainly involved with mallet and tuned instruments (tubular bells aptly underline the announcement that "Love is a cloud that scatters pearls"). They contribute much to the impression of fractal imagery in musical dress, pointing to  hard-to-perceive motes in the middle distance of the Rumi universe. Peeks into Christmas stockings of enlightenment are promised, and Stark and his large gathering of musicians did their best to provide revelations. 

The program's first half drew upon sacred music from the Christian tradition, starting with "Let the bright seraphim" by George Frideric Handel, a soprano aria with a dazzling obbligato part for solo trumpet. The featured soloists were Christina Pier and Conrad Jones, with a small orchestra of ISO players accompanying. The soprano didn't manage all the divisions crisply and her tone in the middle and low registers sounded veiled. Up high there were welcome signs of a brilliance to match the trumpeter's, especially in the repeated "A" section of the da capo aria. 

Pier's voice opened up and became more lyrical and flowing in the other piece, Francis Poulenc's liturgically based "Gloria." This brought forward  the ISC's customary skills and those of a cunningly deployed full orchestra, with lots of sparkle in the "Domine Fili unigenite" section. The soloist seemed comfortable connecting phrases and soaring in the "Agnus Dei." In the concluding "Qui sedes ad dexteram patris," she was joined in radiance by the brass and a strong showing by the choir's tenors.

But the centerpiece remains the commissioned work. Further acquaintance with "Toward a Secret Sky," particularly if the planned recording rights some of the imbalance I heard Friday, is certain to boost admiration for the intricacy and passion of Thomas' new work, and those motes in the middle distance might no longer vanish amid the huge vistas of the whole. 

Tuesday, April 25, 2023

Saxophone's new classical side: Joseph Lulloff tells 'New Stories'

Joseph Lulloff, storyteller

Many classical fans have a smattering of acquaintance with the saxophone (almost always the alto) as a classical instrument, even if that rarely goes beyond "The Old Castle" in Ravel's orchestration of "Pictures at an Exhibition." But the eminence of Adolphe Sax's invention in pop and jazz is bound to weigh heavy in the general sound-world, making virtuosity in written concert music a rarity.

Joseph Lulloff is part of that classical tradition, and in "New Stories" (Blue Griffin Recordings) lends his artistic mission to music that has  narrative resonance. He is assisted in effective partnership by Yu-Lien The at the piano. The composers represented reveal contrasting creative personalities. None of them follows in the recent tradition of high modernism, in which how you organize facets of musical construction to seem self-sufficient may be about adhering to academic rigor.

Yu-Lien The, duo pianist

Frequently represented on Cedille is the Midwestern composer Stacy Garrop, whose "Wrath" makes the post-modernist point almost glaringly, although Leo Ornstein (1895-2002 [!]) comes to mind for his trenchant piano suite, "Three Moods" (1914). Garrop's three movements are headed "Menace," "Shock," and "Amok." The saxophone writing is an outsized representation of what those words suggest. The independence of the two instruments is remarkable, considering that both aim at identical targets. Lulloff and The make a fitting climax out of  "Amok," which is torrential enough, with an especially relentless saxophone melody,  to sound almost out of control, ending with a squawk-smear from Lulloff.

The four composers' freedom with the parameters of musical genre seems to suit these artists. Carter Pann's Sonata for Alto Saxophone and Piano sprawls over four movements, one of which encompasses three "songs without words." It's a mosaic of portraiture, sometimes of beings both alive and deceased; in the case of the three songs, of emotional conditions: Reverie, Soaring, and Consolation.

The slow, pulsing introspection of "Reverie" shows off Lulloff's sweet tone. "Soaring" privileges The's capacity for reveling in rippling textures as the saxophone goes aloft. "Consolation" sheds  balm, starting very  quietly, then gathering substance. Some rushing episodes include a mini-fanfare, representing hope and reminding the listener that to console or to be consoled is a more complicated process than it may at first appear. The Epilogue: Lacrymosa is a funereal tribute that takes care not to cross into gloom.

David Biedenbender goes powerfully into the urban scene in his hard-nosed "Detroit Steel." Preceding that stunner and opening the program, Dorothy Chang also provides the disc's title in her "New Stories," a 2013 work that explicitly invites listeners to cast their deliberately receptive nets wide and catch those stories as they pass before them. At the same time, they are sure to learn new things about saxophone virtuosity and look across fresh horizons in duo partnership.

Monday, April 24, 2023

IRT's 'Clue' lifts the spirit of play in concluding its golden season

Out of many, one grand characterization: comical suspense.

Special effects envelop you as you settle into your seat for "Clue" at Indiana Repertory Theatre. The distant and persistent sounds of thunder, lights flickering both onstage and throughout the house, the set heavy with lowering, baronial dark wood.

Memories of playing the board game of Clue will be evoked, and the cliche of a "dark and stormy night" is no longer as associated with apprehension and the thrill of fear as with something playful, even trivial. You have picked up your token and you're ready to go. You will pass the time using your smarts to deal with what the luck of the die brings you.

IRT's season-ending production is built upon the game through the tweaking of a stage adaptation of the screenplay of the movie of the same name. Adaptation is the point, and the murder mystery as a genre is an essential inspiration, but somehow at a great remove. Farce is the obvious direction into which such an elaborate parody has to tend, and this show masters it.

But the star has to be considered the production team, starting with the complementary lighting and sound effects, the design of Jared Gooding and Todd Mack Reishman, respectively. Czerton Lim's set is fixed to maximize the frequent movement in and out of doors, mimicking the chance entrances and exits from rooms in the board game. Large set elements shift mechanically and with clockwork precision to afford the audience views of these smaller interiors, but often we must guess at what lies behind the closed doors. What emerges when they are opened is frequently a surprise as well. 

Cook and Mrs. Peacock savor an appetizer of mutual suspicion.

Benjamin Hanna, the IRT's artistic director designate, directs the show. Hanna has weathered adjustment to his IRT association at about the same time as the pandemic interrupted everything. He has come through several times helming the company's productions, and I've appreciated his guiding mastery of both the sentimental ("This Wonderful Life" and "A Christmas Carol") and the uproarious sides of theater ("The Book Club Play").

Acting in a show like "Clue" must resemble a close-order drill, without much room for working out nuances of characterization. "What should I be feeling here?" is unlikely to be a question worth an actor's rumination. What's projected at the outset of each entrance, especially those of the "color-coded" characters based on the game, governs all that ensues. It's then a matter of making the confusion and all the guarded alliances among people with something to hide and, especially, something murder-related to seek fall precisely into place. Dashing about occasionally coalesces into paroxysms of choreography.

It's hard to boost any one of the portrayals in the performance I saw Sunday as standing out. I took special pleasure in the most expansive of several tour-de-force impersonations, caricatures verging on the overripe.  They were Eric Sharp as the perpetually endangered and excitable Mr. Green and John Taylor Philips as the butler Wadsworth. Tiptoeing amid spoilers, let me bring forward especially Wadsworth's extended death scene. It's a compendium of famous last lines together with a clutch of gasps, groans, shudders, and spasmodic revival. As erect and overbearing as the butler is when standing, Philips's triumph in this role was on the floor.

I half expected one of those famous last words to be "Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?," which Edward G. Robinson utters at the end of "Little Caesar." That's not among them,  but it could have been part of such a rosebud bouquet. (The fact that James Cagney borrows the line in the fast-paced near-farce of "One, Two Three," one of my favorite film comedies of the past mid-century, brought it to mind as I thought about IRT's fast-paced full farce).

It's important to make brief mentions of Andrea San Miguel, playing the daylights out of her saucy-French-maid role, Henry Woronicz as the daft Colonel Mustard, Emjoy Gavinu as the cryptic and crypt-worthy Mrs. White, the mega-expressive Claire Wilcher as the proud, brassy Mrs. Peacock, Beethovan Oden as the self-important scientist Professor Plum, and Emily Berman as Miss Scarlet, a woman of easy ways and hard intentions. 

Colonel Mustard and Wadsworth flank unexpected Motorist.

The famous murder tools of the original are supplemented by a red-herring weapon — a glistening cleaver wielded by the Cook, Devan Mathias at her baleful best. Ryan Artzberger is chiefly the shadowy lord of the manor, Mr. Boddy, then moves smoothly into a couple of much different minor roles: a stranded, bewildered Motorist and a Police Chief of multiple brief identities. Kerrington Shorter plays a readily misled Cop latterly thrown into the mix as "Clue" mocks the complications of its genre. 

You may remember from Clue the task of coming up with "Suggestions" as your token enters a room. The rules in our set put the word in caps, set off by quotation marks. That prompts players to realize that they will be a long way from Sherlock Holmes' ironclad deductions. Similarly, "Clue" comes as close as you can get to turning any probability into a possibility and then into a "nah, there's no way that could happen." You'll find it all there at the same time in this delightfully scatterbrained yet ruthlessly focused show, if I might hazard a "Suggestion."

[Photos by Zach Rosing]


Sunday, April 23, 2023

Isaiah J. Thompson's path to the fellowship: Digging deep while keeping the heavens in view

Isaiah J. Thompson showed range of expression, swung hard.

Although several appearances this season fed into evaluation of the five participants in the 2023 American Pianists Awards, recency bias and the sense of occasion that clings to the gala finals lead me to focus on Saturday night's performances by Isaiah J. Thompson, who was awarded the Cole Porter Fellowship in Jazz about 11 p.m. in Hilbert Circle Theatre.

Already an active professional on the New York scene, building upon his academic credentials (two Juilliard degrees), the 25-year-old crowned his Indianapolis season with renditions of the Kern-Hammerstein "Nobody Else But Me" (with guest vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant) and Randy Weston's "Hi-Fly" (with the Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra). The jury chose him over four other finalists: Caelan Cardello, Paul Cornish, Thomas Linger, and Esteban Castro. It's a great distinction, and its recent past was vividly recalled with  a video salute from 2019 winner Emmet Cohen and an onstage visit for a chat with emcee Bill Charlap by 2011 Fellow Aaron Diehl.

First to appear with Salvant, a recent star among the rising crop of jazz singers, Thompson raised in my mind the question how much a pianist is a singer's accompanist and how much a duo partner. Considering that the setting is a piano competition, a fantasy rumination at the keyboard seems appropriate to show off a grasp of the material. On the other hand, the pianist's initial statement should genuinely introduce the vocal. I'm not sure Thompson chose the latter approach, but then neither did Cardello at the start of Cole Porter's "All Through the Night." The others opted more for a solo display that invited the singer in.

That impression was little detriment to what I got from Thompson as he was joined by the BWJO in the finals' second half. In a video about his arrangements, co-founder Brent Wallarab praised what a "grooving" and "in-the-pocket" performance could rise from the Weston tune and a Thompson trio version of it that guided him in making a big-band version. The gala-finals performance rose to the occasion; as Wallarab said in the video with understandable hyperbole: "If you're not dancing, you might be dead." I liked the blend of a Latinesque framing of the tune at first and the straight-ahead swinging episodes that emerged from it; it was not "just another rhumba" (to quote the Gershwin brothers) that launched this "Hi-Fly" so expertly and allowed Thompson to spread his wings while staying focused.

As a listener usually cool to jazz singers, I can't be expected to warm to what Salvant offered Friday

Cecile McLorin Salvant does her own thing.

night. As the late Kevin Mahogany once told me in an interview with reference to Betty Carter: It makes no sense to choose a song because you presumably like it, and then almost ignore the original melody. It's also required, I think, to respect the text. A singer doesn't have an instrumentalist's freedom to address both tune and text obliquely throughout. 

Closest to remaining within what the song has to communicate, while still putting a personal stamp on it, was the way Salvant sang Duke Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady." But in "Lush Life," a remarkable song by Ellington's crucially important associate Billy Strayhorn, I struggle to understand why Salvant put such a huge emphasis on the word "brain." Yes, it's true the "I" person in the song finds regrettable memories burning in her brain, but the sorrows of dissipation are the point of the song. "Lush Life" is not about cognition.

To some, it will seem a huge compliment what Charlap said of Salvant that her interpretations resembled the spirit of painters Jackson Pollock, John Singer Sargent, and Wassily Kandinsky at a party. The bizarre surrealist juxtapositions of Max Ernst seem a closer resemblance.

To move from the funny visual-arts comparison to music, I quickly tired of Salvant's girlish phrasing (derived, I suppose, from Ella Fitzgerald's career-making hit,"A-Tisket, A-Tasket") and linked to what I might call her Eartha Kittenish tone, put under an unlikely yoke with bursts of husky belting a la Cleo Laine.

Kudos to the division of the finals program into duets with a singer and the mutual enhancement of finalist and big band in Wallarab's savvy arrangements (the most remarkable of which Saturday was of Cedar Walton's "Hindsight," which would be worthy of recording with flamboyant finalist Esteban Castro). It certainly can stretch the notion of collaboration to the nth degree, as it did with Salvant, and that's obviously part of assessing what a jazz pianist is capable of.


Saturday, April 22, 2023

Story lines: ISO under Markus Stenz invites discovery

Fejérvári masters countryman's last concerto.
In the lively Words on Music presentation Friday before the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra concert, guest soloist Zoltan Fejérvári pushed back against host Su-Han Yang's characterization of the piano as a percussion instrument. Of course, it's clear that membership in that family isn't entirely misplaced, since hammers striking strings account for piano sound, and it's natural to emphasize that where the style of Bela Bartók is concerned.

But just as we can be reminded that the tomato is botanically a fruit, we prepare it and eat it and taste it as a  vegetable. Similarly, the percussive character of the piano is just one aspect of its sound and aesthetic. Its lyricism is well-established, and piano technique is well-grounded in sostenuto expression, ways of counteracting the inevitable decay of each tone. With Debussy, the idea of the "piano without hammers" is put forward, in contrast to Bartok's provocative early works for piano, such as "Allegro barbaro" (1911), which pushed forward the instrument's striking nature. 

The nuances of Bartok's approach, especially late in life, embraced the lyrical side as well. That was evident in  Fejérvári's performance of the Third Piano Concerto with the ISO Friday night. The recurrent mellowness is clearly influenced by the Hungarian composer's devotion to his wife, Ditta, as well as to his occasional access to optimism despite his generally miserable time of exile in the United States, where he would die of leukemia in 1945. 

Bartok's reputation has been somewhat hurt in modernist circles by what is seen as a retreat from the asperities of "The Miraculous Mandarin" and the subtle innovations of "Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta." Despite the evident popularity to this day of the Concerto for Orchestra (1945), doctrinaire believers in music's necessary "advancement" have clucked their tongues at late Bartok. Did he yield to a failure of nerve? Well, only if you maintain creative artists have a duty to press forward according to somebody else's idea of progress.

Yang, the ISO's assistant conductor, found agreement right away with the pianist and the conversation's

Poised  hands: German conductor Markus Stenz

other participant, guest conductor Markus Stenz, when he noted the score's exquisite balance of solo instrument and orchestra. That proved to be the case in the performance, with its flawless rapport. The way accents are distributed in the second movement got graceful representation in this performance. The evocation of bird song amounted to radiant twittering (if the word "twitter" has not been permanently spoiled).

Fejérvári's native sense of what Bartok drew upon from Hungarian music was immediately conveyed: His articulation of the first movement's main material  evoked the cimbalom. More pianistic passage work in the middle drew upon the Liszt legacy. The finale put a handsome crest of dash and savoir-faire upon what Bartok's late mastery was able to attain. Modernism was not abandoned, just further personalized by a composer who, while not exactly short-lived, probably had much more to offer. The substantially youthful audience's ovation elicited a tender encore, the third movement of Leos Janacek's "In a Mist."

The program opened with a dramatically well-shaped performance of Beethoven's Leonore Overture No. 3, the most often heard in concert of the four written for the opera "Fidelio" (which by the way the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra will present semi-staged on May 13). The huge diminuendo before the fast main section was practically a coup de théâtre  all by itself. The decision to have principal trumpet Conrad Jones utter the first of the famous "rescue" fanfares remotely from near the side balcony, and the second up close into the hall, was further justified by the excellence of his delivery. The final acceleration of tempo had ensemble stature as well as motoric excitement. 

With Schumann's Symphony No. 2 in C major, Stenz justified his injunction to the preconcert audience to hear the program as part of the post-pandemic triumph of "live" performance. The triumphant note was approached judiciously, and made this piece come across as some of the healthiest music Schumann ever wrote. There was more clarity and timbral variety than one often hears in the symphonic works of a composer  excessively criticized for muddiness of orchestration. The extra burble at the start of the first Trio in the Scherzo was no more disturbing than the burst of froth you might get when you open a slightly unsettled can of beer. 

And then the slow movement contains moments that for me are permanent occupants of Goosebump City, especially the soaring string phrases that take the theme to supernal heights, dispersing in trills. Friday night I felt the tingling from calves to scalp and back again. It was wonderful. (I get the same feeling, to a lesser extent, with the Lullaby in Stravinsky's "Firebird" and the rapprochement between piano and orchestra at the end of the second movement of Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto.) All music-lovers probably have their own Goosebump City. Sometimes you can get the effect just thinking about the place's attractions.

As for the finale, though all was seldom right in Schumann's personal world, in his music — when played at this level of commitment, energy, and finesse — that's where we were Friday night at Hilbert Circle Theatre.

Monday, April 17, 2023

Futility as slapstick: Butler Theatre presents 'Waiting for Godot'

Estragon, Lucky, Vladimir, and Pozzo in Butler production, with Rob Koharchik's set and lighting design

Frustration is treated to an extended comic turn as 'Waiting for Godot' gets under way in Butler University's just-concluded production of the Samuel Beckett classic. The drifting wanderer Estragon appears alone as a solitary struggler trying to get a boot off. Doing so  involves an unspoken promise to provide some relief; it proves to be more trouble than it's worth. Every effort in this milieu seems in vain. Estragon's bootless struggle is the herald.

As William Fisher directs the scene and Chris Figueroa plays it, the playwright's concise stage direction is elaborated into a scena worthy of opera. It's one of the production's several salutes to the silent and early-sound film comedies of yore. An episode of accelerating exchange of hats between Estragon and Vladimir, his itinerant buddy and parody intellectual with whom he's locked in place as they wait for the title character, recalls Laurel and Hardy. 

The way Estragon sometimes rolls his bowler from fingertips up the arm and onto his head is a bit I could not find on film, but it's an old trick I'm sure has been recorded somewhere. It has the ironic connotation of dapper control that I once saw from Cab Calloway onstage in a touring production of "Bubbling Brown Sugar." In this play, it's Estragon's only touch of suavity.

The style of physical comedy on film, with the spasmodic sight gags, helps highlight the fact that no simple task can fail to get complicated. It's a clue to the way Estragon and Vladimir get stuck in a dead-end landscape of expectation unfulfilled. Enigmatic reports on when Godot might be expected are delivered to them with officious consistency by Eli Kohn as Boy.

The signature ancient trick that recurs in the script is a variation on the pratfall, a sudden collapse that can go forward or backward. That's so well done here it must have required a seminar in stage falling in addition to  line-gesture-blocking rehearsal. From the audience perspective, there's nothing like it for combined shock and amusement. To see a simulated life seem momentarily snuffed out by a fall is a reminder of our real-life contingency. It makes of theater a parable of human existence, ever subject to being thwarted by accident and unplanned interruption.

Described as "a tragicomedy in two acts," the much-referenced play clearly is a milestone in comedy — the 20th century's reigning genre on page and stage alike. Comedy with its suggestions of wasted effort dominates any representation of human agency, which lies at the core of drama. Nole Beran's risible, purpose-driven portrayal of Vladimir gave particular stature to the dilemma.

Even the authoritarian Pozzo, grandiloquently memorable in Seamus Quinn's portrayal, is decisively undercut. His enslaved beast of burden, the submissive Lucky, is allowed one substantial outburst that owes something in style to the rhetorical flair of "Ulysses," the modernist landmark by James Joyce, for whom Beckett worked briefly as secretary. The speech is a tour de force for Austin Bock, who plays the role otherwise with catatonic stamina.

In a withering assessment of drama in relation to theater, the estimable Canadian author Robertson Davies once wrote: "...drama is what is left of great theatre when you have drained all the fun out of it. Drama is what serious people are ready to accept as worthy of their distinguished consideration. Theatre is the exuberance, the exaggeration, the invention, the breathtaking, rib-tickling zest of theatrical performance at its peak."

An unfair dichotomy? Perhaps, but it points to what makes "Waiting for Godot" a classic, despite its perpetual oddity and avant-garde frisson. With this play, Beckett shed light on the seriousness of what drama tackles without compromising the qualities of pure theater. The fun is still there; the drama survives somehow through it all. The stage direction that ends both acts is the ultimate one-liner. After Vladimir, then Estragon, says "Yes, let's go"  (that's drama), there's this: They do not move. That's theater.


[Photo by Zach Rosing]

Sunday, April 16, 2023

Seductive flute concerto sets up ICO's concise postcard tour

Demarre McGill: nimble articulation, expressive warmth

The music of Kevin Puts has had some standout displays in recent years, both in Indianapolis and not so far away. Saturday night it was the turn of his Flute Concerto, as the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra welcomed Demarre McGill as guest artist for a concert labeled "Musical Postcard."

The label had plural resonance, because the idea seemed to be to hop around the globe to a few places where regionally characteristic music emerged and has been celebrated by classical composers. Matthew Kraemer put together a charming program of works by Gyorgy Ligeti (whose centennial year has occasioned a burst of representation in concert schedules), Manuel de Falla, and Miguel del Aguila.

To sum up the Puts history in the region: Cincinnati Opera mounted an emotionally engaging production of his "Silent Night," romantically built upon a famous spontaneous truce between foes along First World War front lines at Christmas 1914. The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra co-commissioned  "Silent Night Elegy," performed in 2019 near the end of what turned out to be Krzysztof Urbanski's last full season as music director. And that performance was close enough to "Letters from Georgia," which graced the gala opening night of the 2017-18 season and featured superstar soprano Renee Fleming in an interpretation of some correspondence from Georgia O'Keeffe. 

Clearly, an affinity for rendering human character through music helps distinguish Kevin Puts. And though there's no programmatic content in this concerto, showcases of this sort encourage the listener to attribute revelations of personality to the treatment of the solo instrument. McGill seemed always apt to project this in a performance well-coordinated by Kraemer.  

The long orchestral tutti at the start draws upon the most familiar Aaron Copland style, his individually fashioned woodland and prairie Americana. Once the solo instrument enters, such reminiscences move into the background. The flute cadenza is rich in demands that must sound natural and flowing. McGill achieved this effect: The tone remained full, the phrases well-supported. 

These pluses remained, through the pretty slow movement (in tribute to Mozart, too literal for my taste) and got splendidly displayed in the finale. Woodblock and xylophone immediately lend a crisp energy to the music; then slower middle episodes, with melody taking over from rhythm, yielded to a surprising, final Latinesque drive, featuring in accompaniment a tricky hand-clapping pattern for just about everyone in the orchestra who was not playing. Admiration and delight emerged, joined at the hip till the end.

Apart from a somewhat tentative final note of the first movement, McGill exemplified the steady virtues of superb breath control and a warmth of expression that suffused even the fast passages. Nothing breathy or simply dashed off (which solo violinists can get away with) was to be heard. Whenever I want to reacquaint myself with an unaccompanied instrumental recording (excepting the piano, of course), I turn either to the Bach cello suites and violin sonatas and partitas or to Jean-Pierre Rampal's old LP of a dozen Telemann flute fantasies. McGill's performance Saturday was pretty much at that level of security, fullness and agility. For an encore, he offered a piece written for him by James Lee III, "Principal Brothers No.1," which exhibited the same virtues in a customized setting. 

The concert opened with the first suite the Spanish composer Falla drew from "The Three-Cornered Hat," his cheeky score for Sergei Diaghilev's pantomime. Some of the less familiar excerpts are in this suite, which also draws upon the pastel coloration of Falla's roughly contemporary quasi-piano-concerto, "Nights in the Gardens of Spain." The performance handsomely set up expectations for the quirkiness and ensemble novelties of the well-chosen program. 

After intermission came "Salon Buenos Aires," Aguila's evocation of vernacular Argentina, with extensive celebrations of the tango and the piquant use of bitonality here and there. That called to mind what Darius Milhaud also did, more aggressively, superimposing tonal centers with Brazilian folk music in "Saudades do Brazil." There was also a captivating use of two horns in dialogue, offstage and on-, to crown the piece. The mysteries suggested by the second movement's title "Tango to Dream" came through cleverly in some string-strumming by the pianist, the string sections in delicate tremolos, and the inevitably ethereal harp and celesta.

 An early example of the resourcefulness of the Hungarian composer Ligeti concluded the concert. Only hinting at the sound explorations that were to make his art internationally famous among the concert music included in "2001: A Space Odyssey," this piece shows a fresh interpretation of folk-music sources, with sometimes abrupt changes of texture and tempo. All of it seemed to be well in hand as the ICO continues to make a virtuoso impression, thanks to the variety and balance of its concerts under the music director's sure guiding hand.

Saturday, April 15, 2023

Swiss movement, funkified: Journeys makes return visit to Jazz Kitchen

The conventional image of Switzerland has a few parameters of high order. They can make the brief

Journeys in action at a venue with elaborate lighting,

description of Journeys as "the best of Swiss jazz funk fusion" on its website seem a contradiction in terms. Consider: well-crafted timepieces, neutrality, secret bank accounts, skiing and mountain climbing, William Tell, Roger Federer. From the chalet to the shimmy might seem an incalculable distance.

But on Friday night, Journeys was there at the Jazz Kitchen bridging the gap. It was a return visit after eight years that the band was explicitly grateful for. A packed first set, the audience filled out with a last-minute offer of free admission (a rare JK offer for a first set), was mutually thrilling — from the bandstand to the tables and back again.

With 20 years of experience together, Journeys has what's required to undertake on a short, strenuous tour. It goes to Atlanta today, having come from New York the day before Indianapolis.  The well-honed band biography shows in the tightness of ensemble, inevitably focused on its all-original book. 

Some of the band's gratitude to be up and about is of course due to getting back into action, like everybody else, after the pandemic. In its first set, one of the tunes was "Bye-bye Covid," which suggests a forgivable optimism. Is the current shift from pandemic to endemic worth celebrating? Journeys must think so. Philippe Mall put aside his alto saxophone to pick up the tenor, and his hearty solo lifted the music to soaring through blue skies. Expletive-delete the pandemic!

The piece that followed, an apparent favorite of an audience member with whom the drummer and Journeys spokesman Robert Mark said he went to school, was the equally hearty "Transit." That featured another Mall solo that roamed freely around most of the tenor's compass. 

The composition also had a flaw that's familiar in the originals of many bands: a bridge that was ho-hum and proved useful mainly in making me grateful for the return to the "A" section.  That aside, Angelo Signore's two-fisted piano solo was one of several substantial turns in the spotlight he enjoyed during the set. He dominated his own slow blues, which opened with an unaccompanied, rubato solo. With Mall on alto sax, which he normally used for the mellower side of Journey's repertoire, "Hard Rain" (no kin to Bob Dylan's apocalyptic song) was distinguished by a fast, stinging Signore turn on keyboards.

The blues theme was typical of several Journey pieces in presenting sax and guitar in unison. The band has a signature sound, one that 's also confirmed by the presence of two percussionists, Mark at the kit and Willy Kotoun with an array of hand-played tuned drums, etc.

As for the guitarists, I enjoyed the steadiness and groove of Luciano Maranta's bass, but would have welcomed more exposure that could venture into funky-thumb territory a la Marcus Miller. The other guitarist, Fabio Gouvea, displayed facility and imagination and ought to have been showcased more, but he's a Brazilian who's just along for this tour, so his sideman role makes sense.

This is not to wish that Journeys resembled American representatives of its subgenre.  I'm not lofting a yodel for an imitation. The Swiss band had plenty to offer within its settled sphere, and it's no wonder it's internationally active once again.

Monday, April 10, 2023

OTSL's 'Champion' vies for a world title as the Metropolitan Opera weighs in with a new production

A scene from OTSL's 2013 "Champion"

Having seen the world premiere of Terence Blanchard's "Champion" ten years ago in St. Louis, for the curious I provide a link below to my review of the original production.  Sure to become a hit, a more expansive version has been mounted by New York's Metropolitan Opera.  As I first encountered the work via  Opera Theatre of St. Louis, "Champion"  seemed rich in pathos but oddly deficient in dramatic momentum and too neatly dressed up in climactic choral robes.

Sunday, April 9, 2023

Tradition of big-band anniversary bash continues at the Jazz Kitchen


Pianist-bandleader Steve Allee is an amiable institution

Steve Allee remembers having to round up more chairs for his initial appearance at his son David's new club 29 years ago. That was the first sign that the Jazz Kitchen would be drawing from a pool of fans ready for a successor to the Place to Start at the same address, and more distantly to the bevy of bars and nightclubs featuring the music in the halcyon days of Indiana Avenue. The Jazz Kitchen  has been cultivating that public ever since April 1994.

One of those long-gone places was the Hub-Bub, after which Allee named the second piece of a set of originals he led with a first-rate big band Saturday night. The performance was a typical reminder of Allee's ability as a composer-arranger to create a specific atmosphere in his tunes and flesh it out with expert musicians. The tune had a bustling ebb and flow while settling for an energy level appropriate for evoking the heyday of the city's post-war jazz center, chiefly in the black community.

"The Hub-Bub" and "A Prayer for All" were among the Allee compositions I remember from 2021's "Vision and Legacy"  concert, and they were conspicuous during the second set of the anniversary celebration. On the latter piece, which Allee introduced as a hopeful response to the pandemic that he wrote during the worst crisis period a couple of years ago, Sophie Faught again contributed a penetrating solo. She was eager to start, and there was an amusing couple of false rises from her chair during an out-of-tempo introduction. But after a fervent bass solo from Jeremy Allen, it was indeed her turn to shine.

The solo was intense and well-shaped. Along with her turn in the equally passionate "Truth Be Told," this solo would be a good candidate for transcription, subject to study by up-and-coming musicians. And "Truth Be Told" was the most far-reaching of Allee's arrangements, opening with a moody soundscape featuring muted trumpets and vibraphonist Rusty Burge bowing his instrument and adding other percussive decoration before the piece took off at a blistering pace. Besides Faught's superb outing, there was a welcome slow-burning solo from guitarist Sandy Williams.

The set ended with a colorful tone poem that memorializes a risky bus ride Allee took years ago between two cities in Belize, South America. "Bus to Belmopan," as arranged for big band from its quartet original, expands on the conception of an overcrowded public vehicle on treacherous roads, whose passengers included barnyard fowl. It featured a nicely raucous Chip McNeill solo on tenor sax. The performance was launched with an unaccompanied evocation of rattletrap transportation by Steve Houghton (whose mastery was consistent throughout the set) on tom-toms. 

McNeill was also an apt soloist (along with Williams) on a nostalgic piece called "Mickleyville," after the west-side neighborhood where Allee would visit his grandparents long ago. The nostalgia was laid on tastefully; without sentimentality, this was the kind of music any grandparent might love. 

A few arrangements relieved the headlong impact of the saxophone section by having some players turn to flute and clarinet, as on the wistful "Freedom." Jeff Conrad was a standout for his flugelhorn solo. Other longtime Allee associates got their say early, as baritone saxophonist Ned Boyd warbled with subterranean passion on "Three Hip Mice," with a characteristically deft, saucy followup by trumpeter Joey Tartell.

Throughout the set, Allee was  ingratiating in his remarks from the stage and faithfully acknowledged the soloists. The only thing missing was an introduction of the whole band at the end. Everyone deserved to be named out loud before an audience that clearly appreciated every note.

[Photo by Mark Sheldon]





Friday, April 7, 2023

Bones to pick: Las Vegas Boneheads extend long history in "Still Cookin'"

Curt Miller is at the helm of Las Vegas Boneheads.

 Among my favorite old records -- an inspiration to me as a teenage trombonist —was the trombone octet J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding put together for an appealing Columbia LP in the 1950s. How blendable outsize trombone ensembles with rhythm section could be in jazz was proven to me by this issue, with snappy arrangements and concise, impactful solos. I loved gazing at the whimsical cover by master cartoonist Arnold Roth as I listened.

Now a group with a history extending back almost to that era, the Las Vegas Boneheads, has released its second CD since it was reconstituted a dozen years ago after a quarter-century hiatus. "Sixty and Still Cookin'" (Curt Miller Music) is a project shepherded by Curt Miller, who is joined by colleagues working the Strip for this banquet of ten tunes, a few of them originals and all with fresh arrangements by Miller and other band members. It has the same appeal as what grabbed me in my distant past as a struggling instrumentalist.

Particularly exciting is the participation of Andy Martin as guest soloist. He lends a brash veneer with his solo on Miller's peppy "The Nervous Nellie."  The arrangement is typically revealing of this ensemble's great balance and precise articulation. Even in medium-tempo ballads, Miller is fond of short, staccato chords, as the performance of "I Thought About You" illustrates. 

These textures are catnip to a trombone ensemble. Nothing thrills more than the resonance of several

Fondly remembered predecessor to what Las Vegas Boneheads do.

trombones in close-order-drill, attack-and-release playing. (It's the sort of thing that enthralled me sixty years ago with the Jay and Kay +6 version of "The Peanut Vendor.")

Miller's arrangement of the chestnut "Cherokee" is even better. There's lots of interior movement of trombone voices, and another fine Martin solo. The way the arrangement turns Latin and to what feels like a 6/8 meter is an imaginative touch that lends new life to the Ray Noble tune. 

Also worth mentioning among the non-trombone spotlights are piano solos by Uri Geissendoerfer, especially in the Lee Morgan ballad "Ceora." As arranger, Nathan Tanouye contributes a fetching arrangement of Hoagy Carmichael's "Skylark" and a surprisingly effective version of John Coltrane's "Giant Steps," which ends the disc. The famous parade of chord changes is glossed over, but the tribute sounds genuine and leaves the "Giant Steps" essence intact. Tanouye  also has an imaginative solo there and enjoys the sitting-in of a guest rhythm section with an excellent drummer.

Wednesday, April 5, 2023

Ebony eminence: Yeh's clarinet celebration draws on Chicago achievement

Veteran clarinetist: John Bruce Yeh joined CSO at 19.

Chicago chauvinism casts a permanent shadow over much of the Midwest. True, the Indianapolis variety makes its presence felt in my neck of the woods, but with somewhat less authentic glory.

Cedille Records has a large part to play in boosting the Windy City's accomplishments in classical music, chiefly through documenting performers from the metropolis and spreading their art to the world. "Chicago Clarinet Classics"  trumpets both its composers and one performer in particular. John Bruce Yeh, assistant principal clarinet in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, masterminded the program for this disc, and for those pieces not for clarinet alone, collaborated mainly with the CSO's principal keyboardist, Patrick Godon.

On one of the disc's premiere recordings, Teresa Reilly's "The Forgiveness Train," the collaborator is his spouse, the composer. It's a suite with a dream basis and a response to the pandemic. Each of the three sections has a prose-poem guide to the music's significance. In the middle, "The Gifts Beneath the Wounds" bears the most charm, and the trilling interplay picks up the real-world inspiration of bird song.

Older Chicago music is represented by a Leo Sowerby composition, continuing that pillar's earlier representation on Cedille with his Sonata for Clarinet and Piano. Each of the movement's headings sums up the way what follows strikes the ear. Sowerby's music, while not fitting into the neo-romantic tradition, is devoted to tonality but fresh enough to project a distinctive personality. This is a straightforward exhibition of the aesthetic that helped make him a strong presence in Chicago music for decades.

Another showing of tradition in a cosmopolitan city opens the disc: Alexander Tcherepnin's  Sonata in one movement for clarinet and piano. Tcherepnin died in 1977  (coincidentally the year that Yeh joined the CSO). The composer's conservative nature is rooted in the dance and folk influences of his native Russia. The piece is fond of scalar patterns, so Yeh's manner of performance emphasizes the exuberant, stepwise flow of Tcherepnin's music.

Stacy Garrop's "Phoenix Rising" places the mythical bird's destruction and revival in an idiomatic clarinet context. Through the use of bending tones and pitchless breaths into the instrument, decked out in quasi-exhausted trills, the phoenix's gradual lifelessness is portrayed; the bird is reborn in the course of rapid figures that also suggest the sparks of the fire from which it emerges.

Shulamit Ran's "Spirit" is dedicated to the memory of Laura Flax, whose death from cancer in 2017 was widely mourned by the new-music and clarinet community. The piece is peppy with lots of leaps in staccato patterns; then the phrases become shorter and increasingly linked. A calm atmosphere with considerable delicacy brings the piece to an ethereal conclusion, an apt memorial touch. 

The disc concludes with a formidable work by Robert Muczynski, "Time Pieces" for clarinet and piano. Demands both technical and expressive are distributed generously to both clarinet and piano. The fourth and final piece shows two facets in succession, with its placid mood abruptly abandoned as virtuosity emerges to confirm the recitalist's expert command of his repertoire. 


Saturday, April 1, 2023

ISO embraces Rachmaninoff on his birthday, filling that out with Sibelius and a newish work

Falling right into place to mark the sesquicentennial birth anniversary of Sergei Rachmaninoff will be

George Li: both nimble and deep-delving

the second Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra performance this weekend of the Russian composer's "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini." That's no April Fools' Day joke. It would be a pretty lame one if it were. The repeat will happen at 5:30 p.m. today.

Heard the evening before at Hilbert Circle Theatre came George Li's first performance as an ISO soloist in a work that has always been among the public's favorites by Rachmaninoff.  Calling it a rhapsody might seem to signal a formless exploitation of the Paganini theme, the Italian violinist's 24th caprice for solo violin. But it is in fact a cunning set of variations, whose rhapsodic element is most striking in the way the piece begins, taking an oblique approach to the original. There's also the conspicuous use of the "Dies irae" chant of medieval origin; the melody has found occasional prominence in classical music from Berlioz's Fantastic Symphony (1830) on.

Marianne Williams Tobias' fascinating program note details Rachmaninoff's biographical and occasionally mystical interest in the chant's evocation of Judgment Day and its application to the tug of evil that has long been linked with Paganini as the devil's-bargain secret of his virtuosity. Thus, the work can be heard as both an abstract exercise in wit and structure and a journey according to a lurid scenario.

Li, a 27-year-old with an unusually busy schedule and performance résumé, displayed from the first a zest for the often pointillistic nature of the piano writing. His tone in staccato and rapidly articulated passages was uncommonly rich. His touch was never superficial. Clearly he takes this work seriously from beginning to end. With guest conductor Robert Spano on the podium, the meeting of minds about the score was consistently in play.

Changes in atmosphere were effectively handled: the 17th variation, suspenseful as well as dreamy, made a perfect introduction to the 18th. That contains the ingenious tune the composer concocted by turning the theme upside down and lingering romantically over the result. (Only some shaky, soft trumpet phrases robbed the 17th variation of a little magic.) From the 18th variation through the 24th, all  performers gloried in the brisk virtuosity that Paganini's Opus 1 caprices introduced to the violin universe.

Li responded to the tremendous ovation with several returns to the stage before offering an encore: Liszt's "La Campanella," another inspiration from Paganini. The guest artist's outstanding skill of making rapid playing ring out with no hint of fragility got further exhibition here. As the texture thickened, no fogginess found its way into all the excitement.

The program's main companion, occupying its second half, is Jean Sibelius' Symphony No. 1 in E minor. Both this piece and the Rachmaninoff share an oddity: a short, whispered coda rounding off a bravura finale.

Spano, unencumbered by eloquent gestures, elicited a first-rate performance with a wealth of clear communication to the orchestra. Starting with Sam Rothstein's well-shaped, haunting clarinet solo, Friday's performance was outstanding. Great swells in the strings exerted titanic force seconded by the brass. The string choir also was excellent in the finale's broad melody, which recalls the initial clarinet solo. Jack Brennan's timpani had the requisite punch and rhythmic drive, right through to the fourth movement's climax.

The tenderness of the slow movement yielded in significant ways to a strenuousness that the Finnish composer always exhibited, though the controlled way the movement subsides got full support in Friday's performance. No wonder Sibelius as symphonist was taken by mid-20th-century audiences as  a worthy successor to Beethoven. There is also in Sibelius' maiden voyage a commitment to loading the expressive weight of a symphony on the finale, a Beethoven innovation. Other favorite Sibelius symphonies, particularly the Second and the Fifth, memorably make much of such an emphasis. That weight remained buoyant in the ISO's performance under Spano's sure hand.

A product of Spano's time with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra encouraging new works by Southern composers opens his two concerts here. Brian Raphael Nabors' "Onward," premiered by the ASO in 2019, the year of its composition, comes with the sort of verbal message that young composers often thrust forward nowadays to show their interest in generating positive responses to the world's messiness. One finds such attempts to win favor in statements by pop and jazz musicians about their new music, too.

I don't want to detach a composer's declaration of values from his actual work, but "Onward" seemed on first hearing Friday a masterly piece of orchestration and expressive focus evolving out of a hushed rhythmic pattern, then encompassing neat, brief solos by the string principals. It's a catchy piece.

There's occasional punctuation by the slapstick, a massive crescendo, then a subsiding episode including what sounded like pitchless flute "breaths" to herald a soft ending.  I take this as Nabors' attempt to sprinkle balm over our troubled souls today — sighs of a relief that may continue to be elusive. But it's worth a shot.