Saturday, October 16, 2021

The ISO welcomes a Hungarian violinist to lend soloistic pizazz to its 'Greetings from Hungary'

The second installment of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's thematic programming in its 2021-22 Classical Series takes audiences to Hungary this weekend.

Kristof Barati played two pieces inspired by Gypsy music associated with Hungary.

Of course the travel theme has to be interpreted liberally to take in music merely  inspired by that of the destination, as is the case with two violin showpieces featured on the program. And composers have always moved around from time to time: you have many instances like the masterwork that concludes "Greetings from Hungary." It's music which comes as much from wartime New York City, especially given how touching a story there is behind the creation of Bela Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra.

The Hungarian master, one of a broad spectrum of European artists and intellectuals displaced by World War II and fleeing to the United States, was slowly dying and in need of artistic and personal validation in the country to which he had fled. So, as the program note explains, the commission from the Koussevitzky Foundation came as a life preserver, and made possible Bartok's last completed work.

Guest conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto, whose principal professional work is as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra of Mexico, smartly led the demanding but gratefully written showpiece for orchestra to conclude Friday night's ISO concert at Hilbert Circle Theatre. (It will also end this afternoon's repeat presentation of the program.)

Lots of care was taken with the melodies that keep poking through the busy texture in the first movement.

Mexican conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto

Sometimes that busy texture sounded a little blurry; the lower strings could have been clearer at the point where the trumpets insert their characteristic melody. The movement ended powerfully, however, and with a unanimous force that showed up when called for later. 

What followed, a movement Bartok called a "game of pairs," was tightly delivered in its rhythms, with instrumental colors as bright and distinct as those in a Piet Mondrian painting. It could have displayed a more playful attitude, however, in line with the movement description; fortunately the bassoons caught the cheeky humor best.

The contrast with the  third-movement "Elegy" was nonetheless significant, because Prieto there drew forth a rather searing account, sharp-angled and forceful.  In fact, the performance recalled for me some of those bleakly sonorous Shostakovich slow movements; the association is not off-base, perhaps, as Bartok seems to have had the Russian composer in mind with the brief teasing passage in the "interrupted intermezzo" (the fourth movement). This has often been pointed  out as a parody of a phrase endlessly repeated in the "Leningrad" Symphony, where the Russian composer may have been doing some sardonic recollection of his own ("I'm Off to Chez Maxim's" from Lehar's "Merry Widow.")

The cleverly designed "Intermezzo" proceeded in a colorful if poker-faced manner until a raucous bass-trombone glissando effectively summed up the concise movement. The finale was notable for much excellent playing, with the fugal passage for strings being especially well-pronounced. Still, there were moments in the onrushing passagework where more violin precision would have been welcome. But the sweep and vigor of the fifth movement's well-distributed climaxes were irresistible, a reinforcement of my love for this work since my teenage years. 

The foreground for the pleasure I took in it Friday was a couple of radiant performances by guest violin soloist Kristof Barati. Starting with Ravel's "Tzigane," the mid-career Hungarian violinist gave evidence of a commanding presence. His big tone comprised a variety of expressive touches; his left-hand pizzicati were crystalline, for example. Once the orchestra joined him after the piece's unique unaccompanied introduction, it was clear he had a symphonic conception of the work that worked really well with his orchestral partners. At a nod from Barati, Prieto invited ISO harpist Diane Evans to take a well-deserved solo bow

In Pablo de Sarasate's "Zigeunerweisen," Barati's figuration, delicately balanced against the melodic argument of the piece, was exquisitely controlled. The tempo flexibility of orchestra and soloist was without flaw in suggesting the spontaneity and passion associated with Gypsy life.

The program opened with Miklos Rosza's panoramic showpiece, "Three Hungarian Sketches." Concertmaster Kevin Lin had some crisply and evocatively turned solos. There was lots of faithfully recalled local color over the course of the three movements. Orchestral display, though vivid, was notably less marked by genius than the Bartok piece that came after intermission. 

Rosza may have made his main bid for immortality in Hollywood, but in his concert music he had a film composer's magpie gift for collecting wisely and pertinently. And his devotion to his home turf must have  never left him. In addition to its wealth of detail, this piece had the kind of full-orchestra warmth,  especially in the second sketch, "Pastorale," that would have been right at home in a climactic 1940s movie scene. Though not a great piece of music, "Three Hungarian Sketches" made for a perfect opener to this broad-based musical travelogue.

Thursday, October 14, 2021

Looks inward in colorful settings characterize Jon Gordon's 'Stranger Than Fiction'


Jon Gordon's sax rides upon arrangements.

Full-canvas coverage by small bands seems to bring Jon Gordon's musical ideas to fruition, if "Stranger Than Fiction" (ArtistShare) is any indication. A set of 10 pieces, a few of them terse, fill a recording in which downward-trending melodies are perked up by animated treatment, keyed to the airy vigor of Gordon's alto saxophone.

The arrangements never wander, and the constituent voices are always clear. Endings are neither overstated nor collapsed into fade-outs, which almost always strike me as the result of indecision.

The opening track is especially arresting, in that it shows how much Gordon's arrangements enjoy laying out instrumental voices: "Pointillism" indicates its link to Georges Seurat's innovation in painting by building a crescendo across the ensemble in which every strand gets prominence before the tempo becomes regular and fast. As in the French master's art, precisely applied dabs of color work together to make a cohesive whole.

Gordon likes heavy bass patterns, as with double bass,  bass clarinet,  and piano sometimes laying down a unison riff and setting the groove.  The leader's agile alto sax rides atop firm but lively foundations. You get the sense that Gordon is always at pains to resist any signs of complacency or standing pat. Yet the vivacity is restrained and may seem lacking in emotional fervor to some.

Gordon's  concern for instrumental independence in ensemble doesn't mean he's stingy with solo space for others than himself. He's particularly generous in allowing pianists Will Bonness and Orrin Evans to shine. But why is there no identification on the jacket of the guitarist who solos so well on "Bella," a tender love song? On the same track, a rare bass solo (by Julian Bradford) is matched as well by a distinctive Evans turn in the spotlight. Notice should also be taken of two fine solos in "Modality": Derrick Gardner's on trumpet and Alan Ferber's on trombone.

The disc ends suitably with "Waking Dream," introduced by hypnotizing harmonies in stately tempo and later highlighted by a searching sax-piano dialogue. The whole piece feels like a tidy coda to a cool, captivating set of midsized-group jazz.

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Have any good books read you lately? IRT's 'The Book Club Play' probes more than amuses

The Book Club suddenly becomes aware they're on camera.

It would be kind of la-di-da to open a blog post with a couple of epigraphs, so I'll get my thoughts on Indiana Repertory Theatre's "The Book Club Play" started with two quotations that might serve the same purpose. The first is also the title of a volume, published more than 40 years ago,  of essays by Marvin Mudrick, a fiercely independent literary critic. It poses a perennial, but seldom asked, question: "Books Are Not Life But Then What Is?"  

The other is from a letter Franz Kafka wrote in 1904, containing an even more arresting thought: "Good Lord, we could be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to." After a few more startling insights into the kind of books the budding genius thought people need, Kafka's letter hits a climax which Borders, now defunct, isolated on those complimentary bookmarks you used to get: "A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us."

I'm tempted to think Karen Zacarias based the second act of her wrenching comedy on the first Kafka excerpt I've used here. But the axe-and-frozen-sea image and the Mudrick title together are enough to embrace the relationships that settle and unsettle the play's six characters. Book clubs implicitly echo Mudrick in refusing to regard what we read, especially if it deeply affects us, as snuggling in some precious cocoon of experience apart from our everyday lives as imperiled Monarch butterflies.

The living room at Ana and Rob's Midwestern home in the last decade is where Kafka's axe is at first avoided, then both deftly and clumsily swung, with purpose and effect, on some interior frozen seas. What a pleasure, by the way,  to gather at IRT  and feast your eyes on Junghyun Georgia Lee's comfortable set, under lighting invitingly designed by Betsy Cooprider-Bernstein! As the action unfolds, it will magnify the irony of the setting. You think at first it will be like E.E. Cummings' milieu of "Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls." But no, the furnishings you don't see are partial, and the souls must fend for themselves.

Ana (Andrea San Miguel) has applied her controlling personality to leading the group. Such a person is among the dangers of book-club culture you can find in the online literature. Others are rules for deciding what books to read, how to assign responsibility for choosing the books, welcoming guests, vetting new members, and dealing with someone's inevitable failure to get through the assigned book (Rob, played doggedly and quizzically by Sean Davis, is practically a non-reader who turns out to be quite capable of literary engagement). 

These all have their bearing on what happens in "The Book Club Play," of course. The play's ingenious notion behind these common issues is that this book club is being recorded on reality-show terms by a Danish film maker who wants to produce a documentary on a 21st-century American cultural phenomenon. The meetings of this book club are under uninterrupted surveillance by the camera.

Will welcomes identity crisis as Ana looks on.

Clearly this ratchets up the self-consciousness that may well overtake ordinary book clubs. Participants get to know each other, whether the chosen reading matter is light or heavy. If novels are the focus, as they often are, responses to style, characterization, plot, and setting all clamor for individualized attention. Taste tends to be a cover for deeper matters. In "The Book Club Play," the inevitable wish to censor or alter what is said surfaces from time to time, with abrupt changes in spontaneity (there are some great "freezes" in this show) as the monster technology's power is recognized.

The commentary offered by the characters is supplemented by having five of the actors (all except Andrea San Miguel) also cast as "Pundits." Given somewhat satirical cameo monologues like those breakouts from the old "Laugh-In" show, these characters are nothing like the Book Club people we come to know. They have various other connections to books, from scholarly to retail. 

Mudrick's reminder that, without books, it might be hard to define life (at least in places where leisure and literacy are common)  applies to the Pundits. Mudrick was among an eccentric lot of public intellectuals of literary bent who emerged in the past mid-century, a constellation also including Leslie Fiedler, Richard Kostelanetz, Seymour Krim, and Benjamin DeMott. Genre fiction and American mythologizing tendencies were meat and drink to them, as highbrow notions of the canon unraveled amid Cold War anxieties and pop-culture marketing. General anxiety and pop-culture domination have only metastasized since then.

The play's structure had me lost in admiration. I was fascinated by the relief the Pundits give to the living-room embroilment and the way omnipresent reality TV affects the action. I parted company, oddly, with the hilarity generated by the actors under the direction of Benjamin Hanna and the complementary response of the audience, which reveled in the facetiousness. Don't get me wrong: this is a comedy with a considerable amount of laugh lines, and director and cast seem at one with it. But the play's deeper exploration resonated more with me.

Alex (Adam Poss) is the provocative new member.

On opening-night Friday, the actors reveled in broad comic interpretations steeped in TV sit-com aesthetics. The gestures and movement, the exaggerated pitches of voice in some cases, called forth a legacy now so well-stocked that someday "I Love Lucy" may be regarded as a comedy of manners. 

The characters have appealing aspects stamped upon them, but the only one I liked was the newcomer, Alex (Adam Poss), who despite the provocative turn he gives the club is an island of calm self-possession. Everything about him eased my mind. Kudos for the rapport and individual vividness lent to Will (Will Mobley), Jen (Emily Berman) and Lily (Cassia Thompson), but they all (along with hosts Ana and Rob) seemed exhausting bundles of nerves and needs. 

Across the back of the set there are impressive white-on-black projections of words from the considered texts. Mike Tutaj's work helps keep the show's ostensible subject clear, central, and vibrant.  Passages from "Moby Dick," "The Age of Innocence," "The Return of Tarzan," and "Twilight" indicate the varied progress of seriousness and tone represented by the books considered. The effect of "The Da Vinci Code" is particularly explosive.

The characters, for all their psychic tangles, are somehow as involved with these books as they are with one another. That's likely part of the allure of actually existing book clubs, especially given that they aren't subject to the compulsory filmed scrutiny Zacarias devises for her clever play. 

It returns me to Mudrick's challenging question, slightly recast: If books are not life, then what the hell is? And in the background, the secular Saint Franz is still muttering: "Good Lord, we could be happy precisely if we had no books." 

For us readers, the only rejoinder to that echoes Jack Benny's patrician indignation: "Now, wait a minute!" Then you're ready to attend "The Book Club Play," and if you laugh more than I did, that's a bonus to the thrill we share in just being back at the IRT.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Monday, October 11, 2021

Purely unacademic: Edward Albee's epic four-character drama inaugurates Bard Fest series

 The striking way "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" opens establishes the play's atmosphere of

A successful marriage may be two people looking in the same direction, but not in the case of George and Martha.

foreboding about as effectively as the first scene of "Hamlet," with its edgy nightwatch tension on a castle platform at Elsinore.

Stumbling into their home from a late-night party at the university president's house, George and Martha  also stumble into a pop-culture dispute about movies. Many couples have had such conversations at a trivial level. With George and Martha, they strike deep. The failures of memory and a feisty lack of interest in each other's focus, whether it be momentary or permanent, offer a dark foreshadowing of the more tangled, confused narratives of a troubled marriage. The ghost of Hamlet's father has nothing on the unmet need of this academic couple for a private seminar on their relationship.

New faculty wife Honey is bubbly to a point.
  1. That's what ensues in the course of three hours in Edward Albee's enduring drama, which opened over the weekend in an Indy Bard Fest production initiating the Shakespeare-based theater festival's broadened expanse. Seen in Sunday's matinee (three more performances remain next weekend), "The Prestige Project" launch immediately caught the convulsive spatting of the middle-aged couple. A much different younger couple will soon be drawn into the vortex.

"Has this thing appeared again tonight?" we might ask rhetorically, echoing the arriving watch in "Hamlet." Indeed, it has, and will not be laid to rest. Nan Macy and Tony Armstrong build unerringly on the haunting of the George-Martha relationship by unresolved issues of power, prestige, fidelity, self-esteem, and fulfillment. The fact that Martha has sprung upon George news of her invitation at her father's party to a new faculty couple is the first indication that she is accustomed to asserting marital control. But over the long haul, it's a bravura dance on shaky ground.

Albee was a young master at peeling away facades of stability, here creating loads of unsettling dialogue that draw upon his absorption in Theatre of the Absurd. No one can resist provocation, it seems, or yielding to the abandonment of decorum under duress. The playwright warmed up to this sort of thing in his fizzy chamber play "The Zoo Story."  The flippant, banal misunderstandings and non sequiturs Albee must have learned from Ionesco get their personalized marching orders in this masterpiece.

In "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" the dissection is brutal and sustained. When Nick and Honey

Nick restrains Martha's attack.

enter, it's obvious that Honey's facade offers much less protection than Nick's. Matthew Walls and Afton Shepard play the new professor and his fragile wife with a sure sense for how young marriages and young careers feel their way in new situations. 

There's a tradition to uphold in such institutions, but the human cost is often untidy. A small New England college is seen as carrying the burden of a frayed civilization, so it's too bad the serviceable set at the Cat can't accommodate the appearance of overloaded built-in bookshelves. But that's a slight sacrifice, and Albee doesn't stipulate a milieu so detailed.

Director Matthew Socey moves the cast around the living room with a chess master's instinct for dramatic strategy and the tactical idiosyncrasies of the characters. Everything the actors say and do projects the post-party's emotional turmoil, which  begins in games, moves through a kind of demonic possession, and ends in sacramental resolution.

Macy's performance Sunday had the sensuality Martha needs. She's more than the reflexive bullying and braying she denies. The parry and thrust of marital conflict seem to suit her, allowing her to be forthright about her readiness to misbehave and to emasculate her husband. Macy modulated the ferocity just enough to prepare us for the revelation of her hidden agenda under George's vengeful manipulation.

The lies and memory games intensify as the older couple embroil Nick and Honey in their dysfunctional relationship. Armstrong's characterization of George had well-distributed notes of fury that burst fitfully through his repressed demeanor. Holding in his resentments in an attempt to adjust to professional and personal failure, this George sometimes spoke too softly to be clear (in Act 2 especially), but the tension of his self-restraint always came through.

Walls delivered a full-spectrum performance in which the well-mannered Nick is gradually goaded into competition with George and drops his evenness of temper in frustration with his ditsy, unstable wife's behavior and his hosts' uproar. Shepard  gave a good portrait of naivete unraveling, nudged by a weak constitution and shrill alarm at Martha and George's open warfare.

Excessive drinking has a lot to do with how the four characters become more unbuttoned, vulgar, caustic and self-revealing. All that letdown was credibly handled and never rushed in Sunday's performance. The long show presented an obvious challenge to the actors, but it was the consistent control they maintained that made this disturbing play hold up as a classic of modern American theater in this production. 

[Photos by Chapital Photography]

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Fatal stars fall on Alabama: Phoenix Theatre reopens with desolate, hopeful 'Alabaster'

Going back to the city's concert halls and theaters these days feels like entering a medical facility. As necessary as the protocols are for arts presenters getting back up to speed, I've felt both apprehensive and excited on the way in: mask in place, vaccination evidence at the ready. The healing implications of art have rarely been so clearly outlined.

June makes Alice's job a little harder as Weezy looks on.

This was particularly brought home to me attending "Alabaster" at Phoenix Theatre Saturday night. The National New Play Network's rolling world premiere of Audrey Cefaly's searing drama places us in an atmosphere of suffering and deep privation. The difficult work of healing is held out, but withdrawn or compromised or mystified along the way. Of the four female characters, the focus of the process is June, the only survivor of her family's and its farm's devastation by an Alabama tornado. Recovery from severe physical injuries has left behind stalled recovery from emotional wounds.

A stranger enters June's paltry life of suffering because she has opened herself up to a high-profile New York photographer's project of documenting scarred women. Working out her own issues of personal loss, Alice spars with June. Putting their dukes up, two self-guarded women move combatively toward mutual understanding, then intimacy. The dialogue is sometimes cryptic and tensely spaced, sometimes caustic and overlapping. Director Jolene Mentink Moffat draws from her cast ceaseless virtuosity of pacing and intensity.

Cefaly is attentive to multiple ironies. The action and setting are carried to the brink of allegory. Alabaster is a small city south of Birmingham. The name inevitably brings to mind the most delusional line in "America the Beautiful": "Thine alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears." And you can find out about the human cost of Alabama tornadoes since 1950 with an interactive map published by the Montgomery Advertiser: currently the death toll stands at the biblically suggestive 666. 

The playwright is cagey about the pace and extent of revelations. Sometimes they spill out, sometimes they are oblique to the point of bafflement. Thus the unmistakable spiritual side of "Alabaster" is hidden. It is perhaps best represented by the character of Weezy, even though she tells us right off that she's a goat.  She is also a neighbor, whose check on June is divided with attention to her dying mother, who's observant but incapable of intelligible speech. In a program note, the playwright explicitly states: "She is an instrument of the  Divine."

In Weezy there are suggestions of ancient cultures: she is a Greek chorus addressing the audience, and her role on the farm draws upon the tradition of Roman household gods (Penates) who were thought to offer protection for rural families around the hearth. Similarly, her way of healing June's woes is slow to take shape, though it's constant insofar as she habitually challenges the bereft young woman's defense mechanisms. That task, which is fortunately advanced by the mission-driven energy of Alice, is more than hard. Simone Weil, the World War II-era French Catholic ascetic and icon of suffering, wrote something that illuminates this kind of difficulty. It also sheds light on Cefaly's anti-realistic style: "Impossibility is the door of the supernatural," Weil says. "We can only knock at it. Someone else opens it."

The paintings that June makes on wood salvaged from the destroyed barn arouse Alice's professional

Bib (Jan Lucas) grooms June (Maria Argentina Souza).

interest. Empathy grows as well between them, as Alice is trying to keep herself together in part to resume a well-established career while applying her skills to documenting female suffering. Yet she unwisely pushes careerism on June — the need to get an agent, to market her art: "That's how it is," she explains. June scoffs: "Gravity is how it is," she shoots back. 

But gravity had proved not so basic when the tornado struck, a fact constantly before the audience with various household items and portions of wall suspended above the stage. The show includes one tremendous flashback to June's darkest day.

Saturday's performances had extraordinary force. Lauren Briggeman brings to the role of Alice a well-honed gift for playing women whose practiced strength barely hides profound vulnerability. That may be why her performance in the title role of Phoenix's "Typhoid Mary" has stayed with me so well since 2015. 

Maria Argentina Souza's June walks an even riskier line, because the character is not able to justify her isolation to herself; her immersion in loss fails to point a way out of bereavement. June's hostility and nihilism had a kind of fierce nobility in Souza's portrayal, even as it turned believably toward the prospect of renewal. 

Joanne Kehoe's Weezy, a mediator by nature, reflected an odd but convincing death-in-the-midst-of-life poise. As Bib, Weezy's mother, Jan Lucas shuffled about with meek eloquence amid a litany of wordless moans, cries and babble. At one point, however, and I say this stepping close to dreaded spoiler territory, she bursts into the beloved gospel song "I'll Fly Away." It's in character, of course, but to get to hear Jan Lucas in her other professional metier gave goosebump joy. 

Such moments are few in "Alabaster," but what else is there provides occasion enough to look for further such occasions. It's part of what healing means.

[Photos by Gray Dragon Photography]


Friday, October 8, 2021

Parody genius: Randy Rainbow brings his Pink Glasses Tour to the Palladium

Satirist appeared live to an almost full Palladium.

 At the top of full-canvas political song parodies sits Randy Rainbow, who came to the Palladium Thursday night with a four-piece band behind him to accompany his singing. There were intervening monologues displaying  his pinpoint comic timing, and of course costume changes involving glittering suits and extravagant feather boas.There were also plenty of excerpts of his immense video archive, a YouTube sensation since 2016.

The date is significant, of course, because that was the year the apparently unlikely candidacy of Donald Trump took off, swaggered through the Republican primaries, and was crowned with his stunning election to the U.S. presidency. Rainbow had already acquired a niche in celebrity-linked video sketch comedy, which he recapped in the autobiographical part of his show here. But Trump unleashed from him a flood of inspired original parody versions of tunes mostly from the Broadway stage. Rainbow's time had come.

Like many of us, he was clearly relieved by Trump's failure to win a second term. It's no surprise that his Pink Glasses Tour show is largely retrospective, however. The Rainbow archive of Trump administration mockery is rich and part of our cultural history now. Furthermore, as Rainbow's version of "The Trolley Song" indicates, there's a host of Trump Republicans still creepily carrying the banner forward.

While it was understandable that clever Trump lip-syncer Sarah Cooper gave up her routine this year, the fuller scope of Rainbow's satire has had staying power, as the Palladium show demonstrated. His fans will no doubt look forward to updates of his sly, winsome, expertly detailed commentary. 

Perhaps a song will address President Biden's habit of romancing the calendar: setting a Fourth of July goal for 70 percent US Covid-19 vaccinations (unrealistic when it was set and failed) and a 9/11 20th anniversary commemoration by withdrawing our troops from Afghanistan (moved up to Aug. 31, stranding many, in a bungled compromise with the Trump-Taliban deadline). There will be new material, we can be sure, not all of it centered on Republican power plays and "alternative facts."

Rainbow's security about his brand has led to frank merchandising — pink glasses and a forthcoming memoir, naughtily titled "Playing With Myself" —  as well as an offhand acknowledgment of mistakes. He entered his opening song at odds with the band, ad-libbed "I'll find the key later," then joined forces with the quartet long before the finish.  

Later, he showcased his premature infatuation with Andrew Cuomo, then governor of New York, with a love song that the tour presentation of it crumbles on-screen. He was not alone in admiring Cuomo's superficial leadership during the pandemic's first year before all the governor's predatory behavior came to light. "That one came back to bite me," he said, adding a body part to his rueful admission.

Rainbow talked naughty, as we knew he would, and his lyrics were more unexpurgated in person than on the screen, whenever they were shown. They could be better understood when onstage delivery was doubled that way, thankfully. The amplification was intense when he was singing, and his lyrics-writing skills, explicitly admired by Stephen Sondheim among other experts, deserved more clarity than they often got Thursday evening.

The comedian affected genuine surprise at getting such a warm reception in central Indiana. But no dig at the Former Guy and his adherents went unappreciated here. The chief Hoosier enabler, Mike Pence, was described as the Dance Captain of the Covid-19 Task Force and otherwise skewered as a secret Grinder visitor. The ambitious Pence's subsequent shrugging off of the mortal danger he faced on January 6 might well be the target for a future Rainbow song.

My admiration for Rainbow has a personal component, which I have saved mentioning till the end of this review. For many years, going back to (speaking of Pence) the  2015 RFRA controversy, I have put up on my blog ( about 200 low-tech song parodies linked to Facebook and occasionally YouTube. My maiden voyage was a parody of "Gary, Indiana" from "The Music Man." It did pretty well for a plain a cappella video unassisted by any technical magic. 

But I should say that if Randy Rainbow is the big leagues in this field — say, the New York Yankees of the early 1950s — I'm some distance below the minor leagues. Call it the "bush league" or even the shrub league. I've been attracted by the availability of karaoke versions of popular songs and my fondness for mimicking the rhyme schemes and text structures of the originals as I vent about political and cultural matters. I've surprised myself by how many pop songs, from rock to show tunes to the Great American Songbook, I'm familiar with. I get a charge out of doing these as a writer; the performance aspect is mediocre to worse. I could have improved some of them, discarded others. But there they are.

So it was a pleasure to be in the presence of a full-spectrum master of the genre Thursday night.

Monday, October 4, 2021

We love a piano: Five pianists of distinction help APA welcome back its public

American Pianists Association, poised on the brink of a new era with a new CEO and recent evidence that it can run one of its competitions under pandemic constraints, opened its 2021-22 season Sunday afternoon presenting a spectrum of young pianists it has honored over the years. "Welcome Back!" shouted the program title.

Frederic Chiu's link with APA goes back decades. 

Earliest honoree in the group that took the Indiana Landmarks Center stage one by one was Frederic Chiu, who won his award in 1985, when APA was known as the Beethoven Foundation. Chiu grew up in Indianapolis and studied with the fondly remembered Dorothy Munger. He provides a kind of role model of building a career as a concert pianist imaginatively and interactively.

Among his distinctions Sunday, he used a chair rather than an artist's bench, a touch of individuality that also made him stand out at the 1993 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, where a number of observers (including me) thought he deserved to advance further than the jury decreed. The chair was presumably not a factor.

On Sunday, Chiu brought the program up to intermission  with his canny arrangements of two movements from Sergei Prokofiev's popular "Lieutenant Kije Suite." He has had a long affinity with Prokofiev's music, given permanent status by his attention on recordings to lesser-known works of the Soviet master. "Romance" and "Troika" are two catchy, melodic excerpts to which Chiu has honored Prokofiev's mastery of both solo piano and orchestra. The rat-a-tat-tat of the "Troika" was crisply represented by his nimble right hand. Chiu opened with Debussy's "L'isle joyeuse," full of picturesque virtuosity that Chiu exploited naturally toward a quasi-orchestral breadth.

One of the most often-transcribed early pieces in the core repertoire is Bach's "Sheep may safely graze," originally a soprano aria. Spencer Meyer, the next-most-senior awards winner on the recital, presented an inviting performance of it, the melody boldly highlighted and a touch of mannerism about his interpretation. He concluded with a sometimes brisk, thoughtfully punctuated, and firmly projected performance of Chopin's Scherzo No. 2 in B-flat minor.

Dan Tepfer, 2007 Awards winner during one of APA's jazz years, also turned to Bach. From "Goldberg Varations," he presented the Aria and several variations of the composer's own. This well-schooled musician received much acclaim for his 2011 CD of the complete work, with his improvised variations following Bach's. I continue to view the project with a jaundiced eye, believing this Tepferization to be better suited to instructional purposes than  the concert stage. It was mildly rewarding to note how he treated the second variation Sunday, dropping the left hand deep into the bass and making it more subtle, like a jazz "walking bass." In the recording, he foregrounds the somewhat stalking nature of Bach's bass to deliver a rather galumphing march that comes close to mockery. Maybe varying what he does, from veneration to parody, is essential to Tepfer's defense of his project, but artistically it strikes me as neither fish nor fowl. 

Kenny Banks Jr. was the other APA jazz luminary represented in "Welcome Back!" A 2019 finalist, he has a tendency to spread his interpretations of an announced source into other music. He is an instinctive suite-maker who fashions medleys or melanges on the spot. This was evident in his Indy Jazz Fest performance two weeks ago in Garfield Park.  On Sunday, he gradually got around to the announced Hoagy Carmichael evergreen "Georgia on My Mind," then largely left it behind to spin out his thoughts on "Get Happy." I admired his wit and resourcefulness, but rather missed better focusing.

Joel Harrison has concluded two decades heading APA.
Wrapping up the show was another Kenny, APA's most recent honoree, 2021 Classical Awards winner Kenny Broberg. He opened with a spectacular performance of Scriabin's Sonata no. 5 in F-sharp major, getting its flashiness and impulsiveness right but somewhat shortchanging the mystery the score demands almost impossibly at times: How do you play a brief high-register figure "ecstatically"?  Staying balanced on such interpretive ledges must not be easy. He moved to a less well-known Russian composer, Nikolai Medtner, with solid performances of two "Forgotten Melodies," "Primavera" and "Danza festiva," displaying rhythmic acuity and evenness in defining the dense textures without blurring.

After such a lavish treat of jury-approved pianism, there was a long, well-deserved collection of tributes (including a mayoral proclamation and a gubernatorial Sagamore of the Wabash award) to APA CEO Joel Harrison, who retired in July after 20 years of guiding the organization. Peter Mraz, his successor, introduced him for some humble expressions of gratitude. There was also, appropriately, more piano-playing: two commissioned works performed by the composers. Tepfer played a well-designed, three-movement piece that seemed too long for the occasion; 2013 Classical winner Sean Chen offered "Daydream: Steps," a sweet, sentimental piece in pastels, relieved by vigorous passages. Affectionate representation of honoree Harrison was evident in both pieces: Qualities of  calm and intensity alike carried out necessary roles in helping the APA compile a praiseworthy history, and the legacy Harrison has shaped seems poised to continue its vitality.