Monday, July 15, 2019

'Viva Vivaldi IV': 2019 Indianapolis Early Music Festival reaches peak of the Italian High Baroque

To paraphrase the slogan in a series of local hospital ads, Antonio Vivaldi is more than his "Four Seasons."

Han Xie, festival guest soloist
That set of four violin  concertos, long subject to industrious redundancy on recordings, is just a picturesque fraction of the Italian master's huge output. Why  should those concertos be entirely overlooked in a concert built on Vivaldi's popularity, which largely rests on them with the music-loving public? Unthinkable!

So the Indianapolis Early Music Festival's "Viva Vivaldi IV: Motets, Arias, and Concerti" on Sunday featured the "Summer" concerto, with soloist Han Xie and the Indianapolis Baroque Orchestra, to bring the tribute concert up to intermission at the Indiana History Center.

A native of China, Xie joined the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra in 2017. His training at the Peabody Conservatory took in a burgeoning acquaintance with the baroque violin. In this guest appearance, his approach to "Summer," whose programmatic content is anchored in a sonnet like its other companions in the "Seasons" set, was restrained but still colorful.  The detached phrases, thoroughly synchronized with the IBO and concertmaster Allison Nyquist, suited the seasonal character later immortalized in song by Nat 'King' Cole as lazy, hazy, crazy.

Vivaldi's craziness is largely centered in the finale with its thunderstorm and hail onslaught. The ensemble texture was thickened appropriately by theorbo player William Simms picking up baroque guitar.  Xie and the band thoroughly dug into nature's outburst. Also admirable was the performers' artfully blurry yet detailed depiction of insects annoying the poem's tired shepherd yearning for a few moments' rest.

The bulk of the composer's 500-plus concertos are for the violin. Grove's Dictionary's Vivaldi article tells us the solo instruments ranking next highest in frequency are bassoon, cello, and oboe.  No bassoon in the spotlight was represented Sunday, though the program notes mention that the Oboe Concerto in A minor is based on a bassoon piece. That  work opened the program, with Kathryn Montoya as soloist. Her tone was on the acerbic side, and a few notes in running passages didn't sound fully, yet the zest and rhythmic dash typical of the composer came through. The staggered ensemble entrances in the finale served as a reminder that Vivaldi occasionally indulged in the joys of counterpoint, though he was far from the specialist in it that Bach was.

The other concerto brought IBO member Joanna Blendulf to the fore for a Cello Concerto in F major. The  sequential writing so beloved of the composer came out of the gate breathing fire in the first movement. The slow movement was attractively scaled back to accompany the soloist with theorbo and second cello. The piece was neatly dispatched, though to me it represented the vast plateau of Vivaldian ordinariness.
Esteli Gomez is a returning guest artist of the Early Music Festival.

Finally, it was a treat to hear again soprano Esteli Gomez in three works for voice and ensemble: two sacred motets and an opera aria. Vivaldi's skill in tone-painting — so much a part of the popularity he enjoys via "The Four Seasons" — was evident especially in the aria "Zeffiretti, che sussurate." The whispering little breezes of the title are nicely suggested by the two violins in close harmony. The text's depiction of love's voice being reflected in various aspects of the pastoral scene was echoed by the adroit dialogue of voice and instruments. Gomez's ornamentation, especially in the elaboration of the opening material, had consistent radiance and precision.

As for the motets, in "In Furore in lustissimae irae," her expressive variety  between representing God's fury with sinners and a sinner's plea for mercy was especially vivid. In "Nulla in mundo pax sincera," she managed the interval leaps well in the evocative line (here in translation) "Amidst punishment and torment lives the contented soul, chaste love its only hope."  The recitative was demanding after its own fashion, with melismas tossed off in the singer's urging us to flee the world's deceitful snares. In both motets, the virtuosity she exhibited in the concluding "Alleluia" movements was astonishing.

Vivaldi, whose reputation has never quite amounted to master status, was nonetheless well served by performances that represented his enduring attractiveness. And yes, he is certainly more than his "Four Seasons."

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Early Music Festival heads into final weekend honoring Leonardo da Vinci

"The World of Leonardo" extends to our world in surprising ways, such as the record-setting sale of his painting
"Salvator Mundi" at auction for $4.5 million a year ago November.

Leonardo Da Vinci's high-priced painting "Salvator Mundi."
The work was among the screen images that enhanced a concert featuring a host of musicians, including members of the locally based Alchymy Viols and Echoing Air, and two dancers. The program was conceived and directed by Mark Cudek, artistic director of the presenting Indianapolis Early Music Festival, and Phil Spray, who guides Alchemy Viols.

The program was focused on Leonardo's enduring genius, a legacy also represented by two other images much imitated and admired: "The Last Supper" and "Mona Lisa (La Gioconda)." But painting was only a small part of his multifaceted genius. His inventions, many taken by their creator only to the design stage, were far-reaching, anticipating technological advances centuries in the future. Several were presented for viewing in the Indiana History Center lobby as realized by students under the direction of Woody Bredehoeft,

The music drew upon dance, song, and sacred forms of the 15th and 16th centuries. The social purpose of dance in Renaissance Europe was embodied in Catherine Turocy's stately choreography for costumed dancers Kali Page and Joe Caruana. Complementary movement in and around the ensemble was well-conceived so that neither dancers nor musicians were distractions for the other. The resulting balance could thus be seen as well as heard.

Esteli Gomez, a soprano who added so much to Ensemble Caprice concerts for the festival in 2015 and 2018, was featured in frottole (secular songs) by several composers, such as the melodiously named Bartolomeo Tromboncino and Marchetto Cara. Her idiomatic rendering of tremolos in Tromboncino's "Ostinato vo seguire," an assertion of the value persistence in love, was among her many stylistic triumphs.

She is an expressive singer without mannerisms that might obscure her technical security. This was a useful display of versatility in numbers that, for all the similarities they share in creative milieus and forms, span a wide range of secular and sacred purposes. With the assistance of three male singers from Echoing Air, Gomez made special the celebrated "Puer natus est" of Heinrich Isaac, an a cappella Gregorian chant setting.

The instrumental ensemble was notable for its pinpoint coordination and the occasional virtuoso spotlights shone upon its adept members, especially lutenist Ronn McFarlane.

Phil Spray came forward at several points in the program to deliver spirited reminders of Da Vinci's genius and notable incidents of his life, several of which have come down to us through Giorgio Vasari's landmark biographies in "Lives of the Artists." That's the source of the Leonardo death narrative, with the artist being comforted in his final moments by the King of France, his most illustrious foreign patron. Leonardo's hometown of Florence had become a less welcome place to him, according to Vasari, because of a bitter rivalry with Michelangelo.  In Vasari's telling, piety overcame the artist during his final illness — a reminder that Leonardo's stature as a secular saint to posterity is far from the whole story.

Given that Vasari ends his account with praise chiefly for the knowledge Leonardo imparted about the anatomy of humans and horses, a dance-based program was an obvious emphasis for a concert evoking the setting of his innovations. Not everything could be covered, so why not stress form and its physical components as brought forth musically? Any one of several directions could have been taken to honor Leonardo on the 500th anniversary of his death, and this one seemed a most natural and well-executed choice for the 53rd annual festival.










Sunday, July 7, 2019

A power trio with no keyboard needed: Blake-Oh-Potter's 'Trion'

Drummer Johnathan Blake is the leader of this two-disc trio outing
Oh, Blake, and Potter take care of business at the Jazz Gallery.
recorded in early 2018 at New York's Jazz Gallery, and I had little reason at first to believe it would be consistently enthralling.


There's no "chordal instrument," as the publicity for "Trion" makes clear, and thus the harmonic component — while apt to be hinted at by tenor saxophone, bass, and even the drum set —would be muted or absent. My familiarity on record with the three players, especially Chris Potter, raised my expectations somewhat. But two hours of tenor-bass-drums music?

Knowing that the work is supported by the nonprofit Giant Step Arts, produced by Jimmy Katz, which is designed specifically to give public exposure to commercially doubtful but artistically worthy projects in jazz, seemed encouraging. It turns out the "wow" factor is pretty consistent on "Trion."

"Trion" exposes many revealing aspects of individuality wedded to Blake's trio concept. At the same time, there's next to no going along for the ride. Linda May Han Oh might perhaps be expected to recede in comparison with the powerful contributions of Potter and Blake.  But I didn't get the feeling that her presence was simply foundational and intended to suggest harmonies. And her solos are superb: In "Synchronicity 1," she displays a great instinct for linking registers and binding together her solos. 

Like her bandmates, she has an unerring way of folding one rhythmic pattern into the next. Near the end of the track just cited, she engages in genuine dialogue with the drums, with neither player just toggle-switching. Coherence is never in doubt, despite the music's amplitude.

Each disc opens with a torrential yet subtly varied Blake solo. The repertoire mixes originals with others' tunes, among which the most famous is Charlie Parker's "Relaxin' at Camarillo." There the bop language is spoken fluently, especially keyed to the well-schooled Potter. Here and elsewhere, he's always refreshing what he sets out on the table, like the chef at a high-end buffet restaurant.

Potter's "Good Hope" lives up to its title with pervasive references to South African music. Blake inserts bright, peppy kicks behind the sax. I enjoyed the ethnic flavor of his blend of muted hi-hat cymbals plus high-pitched toms. He heats up as Potter settles into a short repeated figure. Near the end the buoyancy and freedom of the first part is re-established. 

This is a release you may well feel rewarded listening to one track at a time, hitting the "repeat" button. But it probably won't disappoint if you play both discs all the way through in one sitting. You won't want to assign yourself some simple task at the same time. This isn't background music.


Saturday, July 6, 2019

I'm Counting On You (The Census Citizenship Question Song)

Jory Vinikour states the case for the modern harpsichord concerto

Much admired for his recorded contributions to the core harpsichord repertoire, Jory Vinikour in a new Cedille release displays the viability of the major 18th-century keyboard instrument in a mainstream modernist context.
Jory Vinikour is a prolific recording and concert artist.

"20th-Century Harpsichord Concertos" puts the Chicago native in front of the Chicago Philharmonic under the direction of Scott Speck for four such works. The well-recorded program includes the premiere recording of  Ned Rorem's Concertino da Camera, an early composition (1946) by one of the outstanding living American composers, who's now 95.

The Concertino is a frisky piece, starting with a Poulenc-like outburst of urbane nonchalance. The first movement boasts many tempo shifts and becomes almost theatrical in its pixieish variety, with winds predominating. The flute leads the ensemble in a sostenuto texture for the slow movement, with a delayed harpsichord entrance introducing a steady eighth-note pattern. The lyricism has the full flavor of youth about it. The finale, which sustains a skipping, animated 6/8 meter, is offhand, clever, and concise.

Vinikour has become quite the advocate for Victor Kalabis's Concerto for Harpsichord and Strings, the longest work on the disc. He dedicates the recording to the memory of the composer (1923-2006) and his harpsichordist-wife Zuzana Ruzickova. In the first movement, the predominant mood is restless and assertive, flecked with dissonance. The harpsichord is well-suited to filling out a cluttered texture with patterns that would become tedious if assigned to the piano.

Every piece included makes the point that putting the harpsichord in combination with modern orchestral instruments is not some sort of time-travel essay.  It's rather a matter of answering the challenge of finding a new language for characteristic harpsichord sonorities — including its doubling and buff-stop idiosyncrasies — to be expressed with proportional accompaniment.

In the Kalabis, the solo-ensemble chatter in the finale, Allegro vivo, is thrilling, especially when it takes an inward turn to accommodate a violin solo near the end. This concerto often presents an aggressive front, but its overall demeanor deftly blends solo self-esteem with collegiality.

The disc opens with Concertino for Harpsichord and Strings by the short-lived Englishman Walter Leigh (1905-1942). The work is likely to remind the listener of a Bach concerto at the outset. Then it settles into a neo-classical vein, with a plethora of sequences that manage not to wear out their welcome over a three-and-a-half-minute span.  The slow movement has the charm of a modal English folk song about it, and the sharply accented Allegro vivace finale underlines the virtue of compactness when the generating material is modest.

Concluding the program is Michael Nyman's unconventional Concerto for Amplified Harpsichord and Strings, which builds a pedestal on which to place a memorial tango. The amplification doesn't much alter the unmiked instrument's sound, but rather sets it in low relief against the strings. The most delightful aspect of the piece is the way the central tango is succeeded by a solo cadenza. That high-profile episode is then capped by a jazzy "post-cadenza" movement, with the exuberance spread all around.




Sunday, June 30, 2019

Guitarist John Scofield returns within a year to harvest a Combo 66 crop again

He declares his affection for Indianapolis each time he brings his band onstage, if memory serves. So it's no surprise that, for an A-list jazzman, John Scofield has come here fairly often. And it's our good fortune.
The patriarchal pose suits old maestro John Scofield just fine.


The latest gig is another two-night stand at the Jazz Kitchen. He is returning with his Combo 66 quartet, drawing on memories of his first appearance here with the same personnel last fall. His sidemen are Gerald Clayton, keyboards; Vicente Archer, bass, and Bill Stewart, drums.

I'm not especially partial to guitarists, but I find Scofield always worth hearing. Unless his personal collection of licks and cliches is so vast I can't remember them, he seems remarkably free of working a groove or a melodic idiosyncrasy to death. Saturday night's first set was no exception, even though the set list overlapped what he had to offer when I heard the band in October 2018.

I will avoid recycling the well-meant but rather flimsy literary analogy I came up with last time. I will stick to music and avoid comparisons even to other guitarists. If Scofield can always bring something fresh, I should try to honor that in my own way.

Again, he's conversant with a host of musical styles, adapted with unmistakable individuality. Clearly, he still nurtures an autumnal affinity for country music, a specialty he honed with considerable success in a 2016 Impulse release, "Country for Old Men." The genre allows him to inject a smoky baritone personality (think George Jones or Johnny Cash) into his playing, and the bent timbre of the pedal steel guitar can be referenced fruitfully as well. The blues is no stranger, either.

As the 70-minute set worked toward its conclusion, there was a lengthy excursion into the melancholy side of country with "Hangover."  Scofield passed through episodes of strumming, upper-range quaver, and keening lyricism, especially in his second solo, building upon Clayton's moony, swooping organ solo and the lightly applied funk suggestions in Archer's outing.

That led up to a finale whose title I didn't catch. Clayton returned to the piano, revealing with consistency that there are wholly different ways in which the conventional keyboard instrument shines in contrast to the organ. Stewart, as his long association with Scofield illustrates, hangs with the guitarist idiomatically at every turn; he never sounds like a mere timekeeper when the music draws upon rural inspirations, for example.

Scofield turned his soloing into an exhibition of vernacular electric-guitar styles. It was a personal application of what Duke Ellington used to call "the wailing interval" when introducing a Paul Gonsalves showcase. This was how Scofield roused the crowd at the end of his first set last October, and if some want to disdain that as "playing to the gallery," let them. I think it illustrates his masterly way of constructing a set. Wailing works! You can trot out all the subtlety and nuance you want along the way, and this guitarist wrote the book on much of that. But it never hurts to ramp up the energy in sustaining your friendship with local fans, as Scofield and Combo 66 should continue to do tonight.




Saturday, June 29, 2019

ACRONYM displays upper-case excellence under Early Music Festival auspices

Taking it to the streets: ACRONYM presented "Dreams of a Wounded Musketeer."
Opening the second weekend of the Indianapolis Early Music Festival with a program titled "Dreams of the Wounded Musketeer," ACRONYM went from a 17th-century response to foreign musical and martial influences to the rigors of full-fledged battle, which is given the ultimate in picturesqueness in the "Battalia" in D major by Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber, a major composer of the early German Baroque.

Threats to a fictional "wounded musketeer" are used as a programmatic device to link short compositions known to 17th-century Viennese musicians and their audiences. The program notes speak in his well-informed, sometimes anguished voice. Viennese in those days looked with anxiety to the east, whence Ottoman attacks and invasions emerged. "Battalia" is a concise, rich collection of depictions of occasionally undisciplined soldiery, both at war and during lulls and leisure from it, who were charged with defending the Holy Roman Empire.

ACRONYM's program-ending account of "Battalia" differs from those of other early-music ensembles whose recordings I'm acquainted with. Some of the details as far as ensemble balance, "special effects," and the doleful ending in particular must be a matter of adaptation for today's performers. Last night, a pizzicato snap on the double bass concisely represented the soldier's demise, all dreams ended. An earlier episode of soldierly revelry has been compared in its chaos of contradictory musical statements to Charles Ives. There must be considerable interpretive freedom suggested by the scores.

"Battalia" in ACRONYM's performance had the precision and panache of everything that had preceded it, starting from the piece alluded to above, "Sonata Jucunda in D minor," which carries an "anonymous" label with the parenthetical suggestion that it is the work of Biber or his teacher Johann Heinrich Schmelzer.

Schmelzer was represented with certainty by his "Serenada in Mascara in A," a catchy representation of a masked ball. The dotted rhythms animating the simple theme displayed how close "classical music" in its early phases was to ordinary life, at least as ordinarily lived among society's upper crust.

The 12-person string ensemble, anchored to a central harpsichord and portative organ in a continuo role,  now and then performed at slightly reduced numbers according to the needs of a particular piece. The music was loaded with abrupt shifts in texture, occasionally in meter and tempo as well. There was a wealth of piquant overlapping and imitation of melodic lines among the four violinists, always grounded in support from middle- and lower-voice strings, which included viola da gamba,  lirone, cello, bass, and the skyscraperesque plucked-string bass lute called the theorbo.

ACRONYM was formed in 2012 specifically to play Johann Pezel's "Opus Musicum Sonatarum," a chaconne from which brought the concert's first half to a close at the Indiana History Center. Three violin soloists were featured in highly individualized episodes, which decorated the underlying chaconne with a variety of emphasis. The triple meter characteristic of the form helped ACRONYM impart a real swing to the music.

The Pezel displayed the unity and zest that seems to have carried such a large early-music group intact over the seven years since its founding on the narrow, but obviously sustaining, fulcrum of a single work. From there this expert band has spread its reach to explore the wealth of music that enabled the more familiar High Baroque to emerge and flourish.