Sunday, May 20, 2018

Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra mounts a semi-staged production of "Kiss Me, Kate" to end season

The sparkle of late-period Cole Porter glitters throughout "Kiss Me, Kate," the 1949 musical comedy being presented by the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra to end its 2017-18 season. Dimmed though his output was by the enduring pain of a horseriding injury as well as by shifting cultural tastes, Porter sustains his wit and typically sly erotic charge in this mash-up of a romantically challenged star couple's spats and Shakespeare's "Taming of the Shrew."
Ben Davis (from left), the ICO, Michele Ragusa, and Matthew Kraemer.


The show opened Saturday and concludes with a matinee today.  The stage of the Schrott Fine Arts Center at Butler University is occupied for the most part by the ICO, conducted by Matthew Kraemer, nearing the end of three years as its music director. In front of the ensemble, the action takes place in a vigorously realized form as directed by James Brennan.

The set-up ensures that the spirit and foundation of Porter's music is firmly established, and yet the face-miked singers are not overwhelmed by the accompaniment. At times the amplification was too robust, but on the whole the songs came out well-balanced. The need for one of the two Gangsters to keep adjusting his device detracted somewhat from their second-act duet, "Brush Up Your Shakespeare," however.

The production's success depends, as it should, upon the energy and charisma emanating from the two principals. That was more than abundant Saturday night. Hometown boy Ben Davis, having gone on from here to assemble a wide-ranging resume in musical theater, shone as the vain star Fred Graham. The rakish matinee idol accidentally ramps up the Shakespeare play's classic Petruchio-vs.-Katherine battle of the sexes after misleading  his co-star, Lilli Vanessi, into thinking he was after a post-divorce reconciliation. Lilli's rediscovery of his waywardness lends authentic hostility to her portrayal of Shakespeare's shrew. The prima donna's on- and offstage persona melded across a delectable spectrum in Michele Ragusa's performance. The physical scrapping between them had an almost alarming realism.

The show's secondary love interest, and a device for filling out the plot with a threatening underworld debt attributed to Graham, was represented by Vandi Enzor's portrayal of the flirtatious Lois and Matt Branic as the comprimario Bill, who can't bear to take responsibility for his gambling habit. Enzor captured Lois' calculating side in two of the show's more seductive solos — "Why Can't You Behave?" and "Always True to You in My Fashion" — but in dialogue she came across as too much of an airhead to make the characterization consistent. Branic displayed a splendid lyric tenor in the tossed-off ode to the character Lois plays, "Bianca," backed by women of the chorus, able singers who were not up to the song's required whistling. (Does anyone whistle anymore?)

Brennan managed the choral numbers about as well as could be expected, given that the singers are forced to make circuitous entrances and exits and must often be arranged in lines that keep them from looking natural.   There were some triumphs, however: Petruchio's solo with the men, "I've Come to Wive It Wealthily in Padua," was well-designed. Just before that, and on a smaller scale, Katherine's solo with her suitors, "Tom, Dick or Harry," also moved adroitly. And, led with distinction by Keith Potts, the male complaint about the wilting of desire, "Too Darn Hot," was something even today's air-conditioned libidos might well identify with. Near the end, the guys withdraw from moving in on the gals.

Giving variety to the lengthy solos, so that all their charm doesn't rest upon Porter's endless inventiveness as a lyricist, is a challenge in this genre. It was met by the inspired staging, and its whole-heated execution, in Katherine's "I Hate Men," Petruchio's "Where Is the Life that Late I Led?" (both with the cameo involvement of the maestro), and Lois's "Always True to You in my Fashion."

Dance mastery took a while to jell in the first-act ensemble "We Open in Venice," and choral projection of Porter's intricate lyrics lacked the requisite crystal clarity. After the ICO's sparkling account of the overture, the solo start of "Another Op'nin', Another Show" betrayed some nerves, quickly swept away by the choral entrance, fortunately.

The finales of both acts managed pretty well the illusion of spectacle and flourish, despite the need to be largely linear. Such sacrifices were understandable, given the advantage of having the orchestra so prominent in its own show. What was less understandable was for a large portion of the second act not to be "off book," when the non-singing role of General Harrison Howell (Adam O. Crowe) is introduced at a point where the plot twist involving him has to feel natural. Holding scripts and turning pages works against that. Happily, elsewhere in the performance, there was plenty of naturalness to make up for this slippage from professionalism.








Saturday, May 19, 2018

400th production: Favorite-literary-son Vonnegut gets milestone position at the new Phoenix Theatre

Humble benefactor Eliot Rosewater
Catching up with "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater" at the start of its second weekend, I found the new Phoenix Theatre's Russell Stage comfortable in all respects. It was just the feeling to have while taking in the musical stage adaptation of the Kurt Vonnegut novel of the same title.

That's because Vonnegut's work tends to disturb as well as amuse. Most aspects of his pervasive wry humor are as likely to ruffle your feathers as soothe you. "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater" meets the mark, with the particular benefit of the opportunity to appreciate the burgeoning partnership of Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman. They would go on to become a worthy successor to the Sherman Brothers as songwriters for Disney films.

The show has a book by Ashman, and additional lyrics by Dennis Green. Bryan Fonseca directs the Phoenix production, which inaugurates the new facility's main stage, and Tim Brickley makes a crucial contribution as musical director, getting the songs in apple-pie order. Among other design credits, the versatility and flair in Bernie Killian's set and Ben Dobler's projections must not go unmentioned.
Eliot (in helmet) joins into the part-time bravado of a volunteer fire company.

Particularly helping the performance make a good first impression is Mariel Greenlee's choreography, with its flip-book-style stop, jerk, and flow sequences in "The Rosewater Foundation."

That ensemble number introduces us to the freewheeling style of Eliot Rosewater, scion of a deep-rooted, deep-pocketed Indiana family. His foundation dispenses largesse with loosey-goosey benevolence, and the plot soon rests upon an ambitious young lawyer's scheme for wresting control of the family fortune from Eliot. If he can be found certifiably crazy, the golden goose may be compelled to lay eggs for a feckless Rhode Island cousin, incidentally enriching their attorney.

The Rosewater Foundation staff and clients stiffen under the wayward leadership of Eliot.
Critical to the production's success is the fey appeal of Patrick Goss as the title character. With his unruly mop of hair and silly-putty facial expressions, Goss' Eliot represents the right wing's notion of liberal snowflakery avant le lettre. He is peripatetically obsessed with volunteer firefighting units, the reason for which is rooted in a traumatic war incident.

The time of the action is 1963, before the epochal Kennedy assassination; but the parameters of today's political climate were already taking shape. And Eliot represents the viewpoint that everyone deserves respect and dignity, and that "the money river" shouldn't flow along channels accessible only to those already wealthy. Feeling trapped within the station in life one was born into should not deprive anyone of a chance to thrive, he feels.

Typically, however, Vonnegut doesn't spare the poor people of the Rosewater hometown satirical
Kilgore Trout expounds under the skeptical appraisals of McAllister (left) and Sen. Rosewater.
thrusts. Indianapolis' most famous native son in literature saw the seeds of corruption at all levels of society. In the show, the low taste and self-centered values of provincial folks are barriers as firm as the self-satisfaction and narrow-mindedness of the well-off, such as Eliot's father, Senator Rosewater (Charles Goad), and his attorney, McAllister (Mark Goetzinger). Among the several roles he plays with gusto, Rob Johansen, as Vonnegut alter ego Kilgore Trout, makes that outlook explicit in a second-act ensemble number.

Townspeople celebrate their good fortune unto the next generation.
Vonnegut's fiction shows an even-handed waspishness and threads it through the lives of shallow people. Large themes are presented in a thought-provoking way, and when cast on the musical stage as they are here, characters without much depth are perfectly suited for Broadway pizazz when they sing and dance. Although Ashman and Menken haven't really hit their stride in this show, the elements of a brilliant partnership are becoming evident. The ensemble numbers show especially well the range of relevant rhymes Ashman could be master of: "The Rosewater Foundation" and "Plain Clean Average Americans" — though not every word was clear Friday night — are chock full of period references. The cleverness of these requires a glossary (which the program provides) and recalls the topical nimbleness of Cole Porter's "You're the Top."

For me, Menken's music is more merely serviceable here than it later became when the partnership flowered in "The Little Mermaid," "Aladdin," and "Beauty and the Beast." And, of course, "Little Shop of Horrors," which put their names on the map, had already showed their aptitude for the stage musical. In this show, "Look Who's Here" has a catchy tune to match Ashman's gratitude-rich text; otherwise, the melodies mainly do just what they're required to do. One of them, "Thank God for the Volunteer Fire Brigade," is a great male chorus of rousing charm.

Also impressive, and suited to represent the underlying sentimentality of much Vonnegut, is the uneasy love duet between Eliot and his wife, Sylvia. It was staged brilliantly, with its basis in a phone call prompting the couple's gradual entanglement in those long curly telephone cords we were all familiar with years ago. As the pair's wistfulness moved toward renewed ardor, the cords and the couple suggested a game of cat's cradle (perhaps a deliberate Vonnegut allusion). Emily Ristine caught the stressed patience and increased emotional fragility of Mrs. Rosewater heartbreakingly.

Norman Mushari peruses the file that feeds his avaricious dreams.
Ike Wellhausen, like Goss appearing in his Phoenix Theatre debut, made a great villain from the first time his left eyebrow shot up in an aside to the audience. His spot-on performance of the underhanded lawyer Mushari brings up one of the production's disadvantages, however. In the long run, I'm sure, Phoenix musicals will include a band rather than recorded tracks. Everyone in "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater," knew the timing of the instrumental accompaniment, and the blend between live voices and the band was almost perfect. But a recorded accompaniment never breathes, of course, and "Mushari's Waltz" needs a pianist forging vivid duo spontaneity with the actor-singer. As firmly as Wellhausen knew the song and the timing of phrases, his performance of this solo Friday exposed the inevitable, though slight, mismatch of live versus "dead." The sound system in the new room, by the way, is great.

The large cast amounts to a celebration of the Phoenix's durability and artistic stature over several decades: Besides those already mentioned, we had welcome three-dimensional portrayals of two-dimensional characters by Suzanne Fleenor, Scot Greenwell, Devan Mathias, Deb Sargent, Diane Boehm Tsao, Jean Childers Arnold, Peter Scarbrough, and Josiah McCruiston to revel in. They range from Phoenix founders to relative newcomers. The gathering of such a wealth of diverse talents and energies merits a sustained "Bravo!" and is a fine harbinger of many more decades of Phoenix success. Who could wish this excellent organization anything less?


[Photos by Zach Rosing]







Friday, May 18, 2018

Our President wants to do a small favor for China, saving some Chinese jobs, but there's some quid pro quo involved

Tom Horan's 'The Pill' inaugurates the new Phoenix Theatre's versatile black box

The women of "The Pill" triumphantly salute the play's title character.
This morning's public-radio news comes with two disturbances updating the war on medical science: deadly hostility to vaccination in Pakistan stalling the elimination of polio there and of the Trump Administration's move to cut public funding to any American organization breathing a word about reproductive rights, including the option of abortion.

There is no doubt that Margaret Sanger's struggles are alive in today's world. "The Pill," the first production on the new Phoenix Theatre's Basile "black box" stage, focuses on the health pioneer's  role in spurring the development of oral birth-control medication for women. The innovation was shrouded in political controversy from its gestation onward, as Tom Horan's new play makes clear. Sex and politics continue their age-old brouhaha.

Horan, Phoenix playwright-in-residence, thankfully does not take a "biopic" approach to his subject. There's precious little name-dropping or rehashing of ancient battles. Of course there was a long foreground to Sanger's involvement with the Pill, and patrons of "The Pill" can get plentiful details in the useful program essay. After World War II, the aging radical nurse already had several decades of agitation behind her, involving recurrent brushes with the law for her crusading journalism as well as her clinical activities.

The play displays Sanger's difficulty quelling repeated discouragement: the fires that blazed in her young adulthood are still burning brightly. And the crusader's sometimes feisty relationships with a team committed to her vision of medical progress in controlling fertility tend to stoke her commitment, regardless of sometimes overwhelming fatigue and stress.
Battle-weary Margaret fortifies herself with a large martini.

At the preview performance Thursday, Constance Macy vividly embodied both competing
tendencies. The physical and mental toll of Sanger's work was palpable, as was her determination. Whether laughing uproariously, ranting or collapsing, this Margaret Sanger at such extremes finds balance in a clear, steady vision and steely compassion for women, most of them poor and lacking basic rights to health care and family planning.

Her compassion is triggered by one of them, Sadie Sachs, who stands for all the women Sanger treated and advocated for. Played with plaintive intensity by Jenni White, Sadie makes the composite pleas for help of those facing repeated pregnancies without many resources or much practical support, including doctors who advise that a poor wife's only escape from dangerous exploitation as a baby-maker may be to "sleep on the roof."

Bill Simmons' direction is fully in the spirit of Horan's concept. The story, heart-tugging though it certainly is, is given a sprightly style. The movement is energetic and beautifully coordinated, flowing along the room's four aisles with a luminous playing space at the center. Cast members bring and take away props, and the short scenes are consistently focused dramatically, with the enhancement of Laura Glover's lighting design.

Dr. Rock subjects Margaret to withering scrutiny.
The dialogue distantly evokes everything from the moral earnestness and pathos of Arthur Miller to the witty paradoxes and existential jokery of Oscar Wilde and Tom Stoppard. The all-woman cast has the virtue of underlining the irreducibly female significance of the liberation that the Pill offered.

The controversies outlined are not exclusively on a progress-vs.-prejudice scale: Science is often threatened by scientism — a faith that uses science as an excuse for blinkered practices and beliefs like the eugenics that shadowed Sanger's endorsement of the Pill's testing on ill-informed and vulnerable Puerto Rican women.

Sanger's diverse team of supporters is given spiky individuality in the performances of Jen Johansen as the dashing, ideologically skeptical Dr. John Rock, Arianne Villareal as the gabby, insightful, high-strung researcher Dr. Pincus, and Jan Lucas as Katherine McCormick, a salty cosmopolite, veteran Sanger ally and heiress to the International Harvester fortune.

We have generally moved from believing in the pharmutopia promised in the 1950s, and Horan's play subtly acknowledges the difference. But we still seem to lack certainty about what kind of restraints are proper to put upon individual potential and freedom, and how much to allow traditional biases the right to control the lives of others.

"The Pill" addresses such issues seriously and delightfully — which may seem an odd approach, but it works in a production this buoyant and well-honed. It's good medicine for several of society's perpetual ills, and the prescription is renewable.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]


Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Dami Kim returns to town to conclude the IVCI's Laureate Series

The Laureate Series provides a valuable guide for confirming (or otherwise) the jury's decisions over the course of nine International Violin Competition of Indianapolis contests. IVCI patrons get to hear representatives from among the top six participants chosen every four years since 1982.
Dami Kim and Chih-Yi Chen concluded the Laureate Series season

Does the pressure-cooker environment make or mar a developing concert violinist? Do jury choices, despite safeguards against logrolling and unbalanced influence, stand up over time as a fair indicator of who deserves long-term stature on the concert stage? These are questions without definitive answers, though every laureate's return here suggests possibilities.

The 2017-18 series concluded Tuesday night at the Indiana History Center with a recital by fourth-place laureate Dami Kim from the most recent competition (2014). She received able assistance at the piano from Chih-Yi Chen, who teaches collaborative piano at Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music.

The virtuoso flourishes that pack "The Red Violin Caprices," the program's one unaccompanied work, were impressively dispatched, despite some blur and glare up high at first. The climax of John Corigliano's concert setting of music he wrote for the film "The Red Violin" (1998, an Oscar-winning score) raised the excitement to fever pitch. Such music didn't represent the height of her artistry, though its place on the program was deserved.

Her strengths lie more in the area of romantic expressiveness, asserted by how apt her playing sounded in the opening work, Schumann's Three Fantasy Pieces, op. 73. With rolling figures coming smoothly from the keyboard, the violinist displayed her delicately regulated response to the opening piece. She characterized the contrast between the first and second pieces brightly, lightening the tonal palette. The concluding piece, ratcheting up the set's expressive profile, had the "fire" stipulated by its heading. The open-hearted commitment of both players stirred the soul.

Schumann was also represented after the Corigliano, by his late Sonata No. 1 in A minor, op. 105. The performance consistently displayed the duo's rapport, with well-coordinated changes in tempo and dynamics when called for. The tension and mystery of the first movement's final measures set up superbly the melting lyricism of the second movement.  I was struck by Kim's evident ability to phrase like a singer. Her tone was sweet but not sugary — an advantage as well in her encore, the Meditation from Massenet's "Thais," which can easily sound treacly.

I was reminded Tuesday by what I noticed about her manner in a Mozart sonata she played in competition almost four years ago: "When understatement was called for, her tone kept its spine," I wrote at the time. For reflective, inward-looking music to also maintain a sturdy core is an outstanding characteristic of Kim's playing.  The finale, marked Lebhaft (lively), had a pixieish zest that suggested Black Forest folklore.

The violinist's ability to enunciate broad, arching phrases without overloading them in the slow movement of Beethoven's Sonata No. 6 in A major also suggested she may be inspired by singers. As for the rest of that work, the opening Allegro had a gracious quality throughout, contributed by both players, yet without ignoring the composer's love of "sforzando" punctuation. As for the finale, I would have liked something more sprightly in the first variation, which flowed without quite enough contrast to the theme. Other variations were more discretely characterized, and the climax had the right infectious pep.

The recital concluded with a flamboyant, slightly obsessive Concert Fantasy on Themes from Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess," by Igor Frolov, a composer-violinist born in and largely shaped by the Soviet Union. It's no wonder that an artist reared by Stalinism might have great affection for "It Ain't Necessarily So." That declaration of skepticism by Sportin' Life is treated to extensive treatment in this piece. Porgy's love song, "Bess, You Is My Woman Now," is used to impose cohesiveness on Frolov's tribute: The pianist quotes it in an introduction before it becomes both an ardent vehicle for the violin and returns yet again in a broadened climax.

Chen's chops were conspicuously brought into play in a couple of places. The bustle of the overture and the raucous chorus that begins, "I ain't got no shame, doin' what I like to do" helped to balance the plethora of melody. And the tunes were a treat to hear the way Kim played them, as her lyrical gift dependably came through. "My Man's Gone Now" and "Summertime" were the major illustrations, with passages in harmonics just where you'd expect them to be. (It's a peculiar feature of the opera that Bess never gets the best women's music, including those songs just mentioned; her "I Loves You, Porgy" is of a lower order than "Bess, You Is My Woman Now," and Frolov understandably ignores it. But dramatically, the role almost overshadows Porgy, and black sopranos tend to love it.)

Despite its odd disproportions, Kim's choice of this piece to end the printed program is to be applauded. In the mid- to late-20th century, recitals by violinists, pianists, and singers trended toward earnestness from first to last. Way before that, recitalists always moved toward lighter, more colorful music toward program's end. This is the kind of balance that is worth being restored, especially when it is done with the sort of conviction and finesse Kim and Chen brought to it.














Sunday, May 6, 2018

NoExit Performance's 'Nickel and Dimed': Working Americans at the lower margin of the middle class take the stage

Finding constituents to cast as being among life's victims can be a source of political capital for ambitious office-seekers.

Waitress Barbara attempts to stay calm trying to please a persnickety family.
In the last presidential election, we heard loud promises about coming to the rescue of "forgotten Americans." Whether voters so labeled turned out for the victor because they accepted the victim mantle or not, there's no doubt many Americans could cite several reasons why their country is no longer working for them.

Barbara Ehrenreich, a Democratic socialist of wide reputation as a writer, was there early to observe
the work-life troubles of our times. In 2001 she published an account of the work experiences she took on among Americans struggling to get by. "Nickel and Dimed" as a title captured how expensive it is to live without backup resources — working two or more jobs, dealing with family problems against a fraying social safety net, lacking relief from the woes of illness or injury.

NoExit Performance has taken on Joan Holden's stage adaptation of Ehrenreich's book. The setting of the production — in a bingo hall in an east-side neighborhood with conspicuous vacancies in a strip-mall environment — adheres to NoExit's mission to put on plays in unconventional environments that have resonance with particular shows.

Callie Burk-Hartz, this production's director, writes in the program booklet of personal experience with parallels to Ehrenreich's: service-industry employment and the shock of discovering how few resources lie behind most people who hold these jobs. Acts of kindness from co-workers are gratefully received Band-Aids applied to festering wounds. Ehrenreich's submersion in this world was a matter of self-assignment; for Burk-Hartz, it was a necessity as she tried to gain a foothold in an artistic career.

Ironically, the political sustenance many candidates draw upon has not "forgotten" such people as much as it has whitewashed a significant portion of the population that political rhetoric routinely celebrates as "hard-working Americans." As Ehrenreich's subtitle makes clear, that phrase shouldn't be a source of national pride, because her book examines "on (not) getting by in America." The working poor are indeed nickel-and-dimed; life in their stratum of society, it turns out, is expensive.

The playing areas are widely separated around the open room at 3633 E. Raymond St. Scenes pop up here and there, and patrons in comfortable office chairs on wheels can swivel around or scoot back and forth as needed to get a better view. That manner of presentation complements Ehrenreich's geographically distant spheres of her adopted work life: Florida, Maine, and Minnesota.

The success of this production is keyed to the performance of Bridget Haight as Barbara. She makes clear Barbara has a pretty good idea of what she's getting in for — yet still is shocked and enlightened by the difficulty of the assignment. In addition to the short scenes in nursing homes, restaurants, a retail behemoth here called Mall-Mart (but given its obvious name in the book), private homes and businesses using strictly controlled cleaning services, Barbara pauses to address the audience. This device keeps Ehrenreich's first-person narrative alive in this stage version.

Haight's performance Saturday skillfully reflected the wear-and-tear on Barbara of the successive humiliations and overwork the writer elected to take on. Barbara doggedly shares the difficulties of  people who lack her last-ditch options to leave a particular scene or rely in secret on a credit card to escape thorough destitution.

Barbara and Melissa bond over sorting items in a megastore.
The scenes that had the most verve and searing impact were usually the somewhat extended workplace sketches: the "theme" chain restaurant with countless brand-enhancing practices and cost-cutting rules, the home-cleaning service crew rent by internal difficulties and challenged by rich clients' self-absorption, the poignant bonding with a determinedly upbeat wife and mother (a sensitive portrayal by Carrie Bennett)  in the Wal-Mart work force.

The scenes of Barbara stepping aside from this life to consult with her editor or smooth things over with a boyfriend complete the picture we get of the main character. For some reason, however, they seemed dutiful and somewhat formulaic. The scenes that sizzled had Barbara agonizingly engaged with her project in low-level jobs, learning directly about people who will never escape marginalization. The oppressive atmosphere of control, which runs throughout most American work environments, is at least in some of them financially well-compensated. In the milieus Barbara becomes familiar with, the control and dehumanization, the fussy rules and inflexibility, work hand in glove with low pay and few, if any, benefits.

"Nickel and Dimed" is worth reading in the original for its wealth of detail. And the stage show necessarily has to sketch in the essentials while leaving out some of the analysis that makes Ehrenreich's book such a rewarding read. Yet having the harrowing situations she faced represented in the flesh on a generally high level of realism makes this production a memorable enhancement to reading a book that not so long ago proclaimed an unpleasant truth: If we've forgotten these Americans, it's because, on some level of blind reverence for the American way of life, we wanted to.

[Photos by Daniel Axler]







Saturday, May 5, 2018

Other than the ISO's 'ravishing' Rachmaninoff: A bracing violin concerto replaces an unfinished commissioned work

The last time we heard a concerto by a contemporary Finnish composer on the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra schedule, the intention and effect of the piece were quite different.

Just over two years ago, Kari Kriikku, a clarinetist with an antic disposition to match his virtuosity,  played the American premiere of the concerto he commissioned from his countryman Kimmo Hakola. I described it as "an effusive game," which is where I'll leave any further reference to it here.

Jennifer Koh brings a Finnish concerto.
For comparison, Kaija Saariaho's "Graal Theatre," for violin and orchestra, is a more consistently earnest, almost self-absorbed approach to treating the solo instrument and its accompaniment. The American violinist Jennifer Koh was the guest artist for the ISO's first performance of the 1994 work, under the baton of another American of growing reputation, Karina Canellakis.

"Graal Theatre" replaced a co-commissioned violin concerto by Andrew Norman that wasn't finished in time to retain its place on the schedule. Koh is an adventurous musician for whom the challenges of the barbed Saariaho piece are meat and drink. She is quite receptive to music that expands the violin's conventional idioms. That is demonstrated by how she, working with pianist Shai Wosner, handles Bartok, Kurtag, and Janacek in "Signs, Games + Messages," an exciting recital disc available on Cedille Records of Chicago, her hometown.

Saariaho is not the first composer to regard the percussion section as an actual voice in symphonic music rather than more or less essential decoration. But she signals immediately as "Graal Theatre" gets under way that percussion can function as an equal partner to the violin, and the piece makes a point of bringing just about anything that can be struck into play.

Kaija Saariaho's piece expands the violin idiom.
From there, the orchestra in all sections functions as stimulation, confirmation, contradiction and response to the soloist. The work's two linked parts, Delicato and Impetuoso, have the separate characters the titles indicate; at the same time, the expressive profile is a closely integrated matter.

In Koh's electrifying performance Friday night at Hilbert Circle Theatre, the audience heard how the violin weaves scratchiness, frantic string crossings, harmonics, gymnastic registral leaps, ghostly murmurings and fluty sounds into a whole. The textures are sometimes knotted, sometimes gossamer-thin.

The solo instrument is provoked into fresh furies, and also into fierce introspection. The work strongly suggests it's about the violin talking to itself, coming to new realizations about contexts and opportunities, as we are forced to do in life. The realizations are rough, yet, in this committed performance (with much shedding of bow hair), oddly enchanting.

Canellakis and the ISO opened the program with an appetizer of unusual resourcefulness and charm, Debussy's "Rondes de Printemps" from "Images." The celebration of spring concisely represented by the work displayed its full picturesqueness in Friday's performance. The impulse behind its dance rhythms was always alive and pungent; it swung, if borrowing the jazz term is not inappropriate.

The guest conductor's gestural manner — flowing, billowing, full of neat folds and linkages — was further put to the test by the program's lengthiest work, Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2 in E minor. ISO's marketing attached "ravishing" to the piece in promoting this concert, and indeed it ravishes many listeners — including some people I know in and close to the symphonic scene in Dallas, where the piece was performed a couple of months ago.

It has its ravishing moments for me as well, and they were conspicuous in Friday's performance. But I find great swaths of this symphony irritating. Let me bring to bear an anecdote about a prosperous Quaker farmer who was disturbed one night to find an intruder in his downstairs hallway. The gentleman had a little-used weapon ready to apply to the situation. Raising it into firing position, he said to the burglar: "I would not for all the world harm thee, friend, but thee are standing where I plan to shoot."

Without intending harm to any of its admirers, let me warn that the Rachmaninoff Second is standing where I plan to shoot.

The first movement strikes me as a gargantuan taffy pull, stretched and strained at length. The Adagio throws before us one of the loveliest clarinet solos in the orchestral repertoire — and who could resist the tender, ad libitum flair David Bellman gave to it last night? But much of the rest of the movement seems like padding; it wears out its welcome. If you are not immune to the Rachmaninoff afflatus, you stick with this music to the end in ecstatic gratitude, I suppose.

But now, in the true Quaker spirit of my story, I want to lower my critical firearm to sing the praises of the second movement, Allegro molto. This scherzo is a work of genius: Friday night I was hanging on every note. Even the transitional material is inspired. The main theme captivates immediately, the contrasting one is full of life, and the chattering "Trio" episode is fully their equal. The brass chorale near the end is a perfect touch.

Of the finale, which in my estimation stands well above the first and third movements but below the scherzo, there are two wonderful places in the uncut version (which has become de rigueur): one of them draws extraordinary enthusiasm from Michael Steinberg in his book "The Symphony" in an essay that summons up much more love for the Rachmaninoff Second than I can muster.

It's in the development, where hints of downrushing scales from before become full-blown and widely distributed — different speeds, registers, colors that gather ringingly toward a climax. Just thinking of that passage now give me chills. The other excitement in this movement for me is the change Rachmaninoff introduces when he brings back the lyrical theme: The brass become subtly commanding in the background, not undercutting the melody but giving it new urgency before the movement's main business is reestablished in the last few measures, punctuated with a resounding thump. The composer doesn't just double down on his lyrical inspiration but presents it as a song of experience, changed by its lively neighborhood.

So there, lovers of the Rachmaninoff Second Symphony. At most I've merely grazed your favorite, who, after all, had a right to be there in the first place, unlike the home invader disturbing the Quaker's peace. I can't take exception to anything in Friday's sterling performance, though I will never love this composition on the whole.