Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Horacio Franco, a mainstay of contemporary Baroque performance practice in Mexico, energized a hometown crowd in Mexico City

For a couple of Festival Music Society  seasons, Indianapolis fans of early music got to hear a group
Looking uncharacteristically grim, Horacio Franco is in fact full of graciousness and smiles on the concert stage.
from Mexico City whose young recorder player, Horacio Franco, wowed the city's three music critics of the time as well as the audience. For the Indianapolis Star, I mentioned Franco's "well-supported, impassioned performance."

Last weekend, Franco was treated to an ecstatic reception by a full house at the Mexican capital's Palacio de Bellas Artes for his 40th-anniversary concert. The four decades mark his professional career, which started in his early teens. In July 1990, he was a young man in a group called Trio Renacimiento Hotteterre (named for  a prominent 18th-century flutist-composer), which was on the schedule of a couple of Indianapolis Early Music Festivals.

The program I heard April 14 with my son, William, his good friend Areli Monter, and my wife, Susan Raccoli, was focused exclusively on Vivaldi flute concertos. The 18th-century Italian composer wrote for both the transverse flute (the instrument whose modern descendant is the flute that everyone knows) and the end-blown flute known as the recorder. Naturally, Franco shows the suitability of the recorder for all the concertos.

He was accompanied by the adept Capella Barroca de Mexico, an ensemble of four violins, viola, cello, contrabass and harpsichord/organ.  His playing is still well-supported, as I said 28 years ago, with breath control that complements his digital dexterity. This was evident particularly in the first movement of the Concerto in A minor, RV 445, where he played the high-treble (sopranino) recorder he generally favored in this concert.

He was both tasteful and flamboyant in his ornamentation and cadenzas. That was demonstrated extensively in the Concerto in D major, RV 428, with its evocation of the melodious goldfinch that gives the work its title, Il Gardellino. In the slow movement, he effectively opted to reduce the accompaniment to Victor Flores on the double-bass line; the harpsichord can seem a frill in this kind of Largo, especially when the outer movements are so richly decorated.

Harpsichordist Daniel Ortega switched to a small organ to make the tone-painting more vivid in another titled concerto, La Notte (The Night — in G minor, RV 439). This nocturnal mood was also served by Franco's sensuous, lonely tone on the alto recorder. The passionate nature of Franco's playing was never in abeyance, and slow movements permitted him to give it full expression. When the mood struck him he could display great flexibility of tempo, as he did in Il sonno ("The Dream") the third of the concerto's Largo movements.

With fingers moving at a dizzying pace to articulate the music's rapid passagework, Franco rarely seemed to be all about how well he could display his virtuosity. It was constantly evident, by both head and body movements, he clearly was at pains to stay in close contact with his colleagues and deliver as convincing an ensemble experience with them as he could.

The audience was unmistakably there for Horacio Franco, however, yelling his name and even singing to him at one point. The recurring applause, shouts and whistles raised the rafters of the splendid Bellas Artes. If the term "rock star" didn't connote negative behavior, like trashing hotel rooms and overindulgence in controlled substances, it would be most apt in its current extended usage to identify the position Franco holds in the early-music world and in the hearts of his music-loving countrymen.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Urbanski leads the ISO in a run-up to its Washington, D.C., appearance next week

The marketing focus has been on the familiar work on this weekend's Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra concerts. But the exciting move forward was preparation for a concert in Washington, D.C.,
Alisa Weilerstein, soloist with ISO here and in Washington.
next weekend, and the program's inclusion of two compositions from the music director's homeland.

Krzysztof Urbanski anchored Friday's Classical Series concert in Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 in F minor, and he used the concert's first half to show off the orchestra in Wojciech Kilar's "Orawa" and Witold Lutoslawski's Cello Concerto, the latter featuring American concert artist Alisa Weilerstein as soloist.

The bracing Lutoslawski piece will be featured in the SHIFT Festival appearance of the ISO on April 13. The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts concert will be supplemented by Krzysztof Penderecki's "Credo," with vocal soloists and two local choruses: the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir and the Indianapolis Children's Choir. A preview of that performance, dubbed the Bon Voyage concert, will be offered at Hilbert Circle Theatre on Wednesday evening.

This period of extensive exposure to the ISO in two cities — its hometown and the nation's capital — brings extra attention to Urbanski in his seventh season at the ISO's artistic helm. His busy international schedule has expanded his reputation around the world, and the emphasis on modern Polish music currently should add further luster to his profile.

Opening the concert was the folk-flavored "Orawa," a ten-minute excursion through pulsating rhythms and punchy themes built upon the pentatonic (five-note) scales found in many of the world's indigenous musics, including Poland's. It's also a clever exercise in variety of texture within the string orchestra, with solos and small combinations highlighted. The pulse maintains its energy, and in this performance sounded animated beyond the metronomic dimensions that the Polish dance idiom that inspired the piece might suggest. The audience was clearly energized by the account well before the final shouted "Hey!"

The forces that contend within Lutoslawski's Cello Concerto put it at a distant remove from the exuberant forthrightness of "Orawa." Indeed, as Urbanski indicated in remarks from the podium before welcoming Weilerstein to the stage, the concerto is rooted in the competitive idea at the root of the concerto form. The soloist is less a partner with the orchestra here than a hero countering the accompaniment's recurrent, implacable antagonism.

Weilerstein's stage manner, with her long hair flying and her facial expression favoring resolve bordering on anguish, suited the work's implicit scenario well. More important, however, was her mastery of the work's musical demands: its sprightly harmonics, its defiant buzz of double stops, its controlled brutality, its sighing glissandos, and chiefly its confident "cantilena"—  the triumphant lyrical impulse through which Lutoslawski seems to favor the cello's progress from indifference through commitment in the face of overwhelming forces. 

All of this was so crisply and passionately defined in Weilerstein's account that the sometimes startling vigor of the orchestra amounted to a true partnership after all. After a few curtain calls, marked by the presentation of a bouquet to Weilerstein by ISO principal cellist Austin Huntington, the soloist wisely lowered the temperature, but not her characteristic ardor, by offering as an encore the Sarabande from J.S. Bach's Suite No. 3 in C major.

The Tchaikovsky Fourth features a whirlwind finale that ascends to a coordinated clatter rife with cymbal accents, calculated to bring even a phlegmatic audience to its feet. This was not such an audience, as indicated earlier by the rousing reception given to "Orawa" and the attentiveness and eventual enthusiasm with which the Lutoslawski was received.

The first statement of the "motto" fanfare was a little roughshod, but just about everything after it went smoothly. The first recurrence of the fanfare gave way to an initially subdued development. That was typical of the generous ebb and flow imparted to all the complex material in the first movement. 

It was evident in the second movement that the core woodwind group has never sounded better. Sitting principal this performance were Karen Moratz, flute; Jennifer Christen, oboe; Samuel Rothstein, clarinet, and Mark Ortwein, bassoon. For reasons that are too "inside-baseball" to go into, that particular group is not one ISO patrons are accustomed to as first-chair occupants. Without singling anyone out, these four sounded perfect together in this piece.

After the fast-paced subtleties of the third movement with its famous "pizzicato ostinato," the performance was crowned with an Allegro con fuoco that was solid from top to bottom. Urbanski maximized the tension that accumulates after each appearance of the structurally vital fanfare. Wherever Tchaikovsky stipulated a gathering of renewed force, conductor and orchestra were there to embody it. Such fitness gave this performance so much more than the programmatic significance that the composer regretted ever having supplied for the work.

Friday, April 6, 2018

The other shoe drops: Dance Kaleidoscope devotes a program to "divos"

Honed by an Indy Fringe Festival  show just as its predecessor "Divas" had been, "Divos" shows off further refinements in Dance Kaleidoscope dancers as choreographers. In addition, the program, which opened Thursday evening on the OneAmerica Stage at Indiana Repertory Theatre, is crowned by two world premieres — one by artistic director David Hochoy, the other by the troupe's frequent guest choreographer, Nicholas Owens.

Brandon Comer: The spirit of Elton John
The second half of the show's concentration on two seasoned choreographers by no means overshadows the enchanting variety of the seven short pieces before intermission. And each echoed the variety of responses to particular male pop idols evident in what DK members first fashioned upon their colleagues last summer.

The sunny fantasies of Elton John brought out the full brio of Hochoy's muse: She's a lady with the instincts of a good-time gal. With Brandon Comer as central figure in "Crocodile Rock," the first of four songs in "Eltoniana," there was particular showcasing of the singer-songwriter's flamboyant style. Guy Clark's costume design had as centerpiece Comer in white-framed glasses with his bare chest set off by feathery white "wings." In this number and the ensemble piece "Don't Go Breaking My Heart," there was plenty of opportunity to appreciate what a fully expressive dancer Comer has become — from head to toe a vision of galvanized charm, athleticism, and the lineaments of insouciance with nothing careless about it.

The exquisite balance characteristic of Hochoy's choreography was brought to bear in "Your Song," in which the interplay of one male (Stuart Coleman) and four female dancers (Emily Dyson, Marie Kuhns, Aleksa Lukasiewicz and Missy Thompson) was both distinctive and equalized in tension and rapport. The fourth Elton John song, "Tiny Dancer," made something different of gender imbalance, with Timothy June as  a figure under the somewhat ethereal enchantment of Jillian Godwin, Caitlin Negron, and Mariel Greenlee.

The show ended with the more severe, intensified outlook of Prince in focus, as interpreted by Owens'
choreography. Costumes of (simulated?) dark leather shot off flashes of light in Laura E. Glover's virtuosic design. "Solo," with Manuel Valdes and Timothy June, was a particularly effective showcase for Prince's rapturous, somewhat baroque artistry. Owens was in his element, sending dancers back and forth, reveling in the spaciousness he had to work with. I enjoyed how he was able to maintain the electricity of the concept while not allowing his inspirations to crowd one another.
Cody Miley, Jillian Godwin, and Manuel Valdes in "Purple Rain"

To detail the impressions left by the seven dancer-created pieces in the first half would be tedious, though the works themselves were anything but. Each one was introduced by its creator, and their statements were both cogent and moving. Hearts are embedded in these songs, and personal experiences are addressed in sublimated form. Dancers are inherently motivated to give feelings that are often hard to articulate physical expression, and to show us how what moves the soul tends to find some kind of outlet even in the bodies of non-dancers.

I enjoyed the ache of attraction and the peril of clinging in Paige Robinson's "You Take My Breath Away" and Caitlin Negron's seamless embodiment in "Dream On" of how our nightmares often cast us as both participant and observer. Then there was a sentimental lesson in how dance in ensemble can flowingly display the need to "Surround Yourself" with compatible people (Stuart Coleman). Complementary intrusiveness and rejection by our demons (costumed in black and masked in Timothy June's "Hurt") came through with three solo dancers bedeviled individualistically.

In three of the pieces, I felt the choreographers' signature artistry as dancers was projected particularly well. Each is a DK veteran whose dance personality has become familiar to me over the seasons. Mariel Greenlee's "Keep Faith" displayed her aptitude for characterization, with moments of relief and doubt getting concise emphasis, and her intimacy with theatrical effect as evidenced in her work for the Phoenix Theatre and IRT.  Brandon Comer's "Dangerous Diana" suited a couple of Michael Jackson songs by spotlighting physical exuberance and embrace of the risk factor, as well as a streetwise sense of how we present our public selves. Jillian Godwin's "Zeppelin," its title indicating a favorite band of hers, with four Led Zeppelin songs mixed by Mike Lamirand, suggested her sizzle, her gift for putting across accents with pixieish flair, and an expressive range from raunchiness to vulnerability.

No matter how well you know the music that gave birth to these nine pieces, DK in "Divos" has put flesh upon vibes that have moved millions.

[Photos by Freddie Kelvin]

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Billy Cobham and his fiery quintet cap a two-night stand at the Jazz Kitchen

His patented whirlwind style, with precise accents and crisp patterns on the monstrous kit he favors,
Billy Cobham displayed the intensity and exactitude he's famous for.
yields little to age, it seems. Billy Cobham, a force in jazz-rock fusion of the 1970s, will turn 74 next month.

The last of four sets at the Jazz Kitchen Saturday night showed him to be in fighting trim, buoyed by an ensemble of relative youngsters, of whom guitarist Fareed Haque is probably the best-known here.

Ranging across a spectrum (pun unavoidable) of his repertoire from the past four decades, the master drummer was as focused on the encore "Red Baron" as he had been on "Matador" and "On the Move" an hour-and-a-half earlier.

That hard-grooving encore provided the most extensive display of each sideman's solo chops. The astuteness of each of them was evident throughout the set, but bassist Tim Landers came through with a particular well-rounded, rhythmically intricate solo.

Paul Hanson, who was heard mostly on the seductive amplified bassoon (soprano saxophone is his other instrument), played a vigorous solo that had been foreshadowed by his robust lyricism on "Heather," a dependable showcase for whatever reedman Cobham has on the bandstand. That ballad from "Crosswinds," a signature Cobham achievement from long ago, opened with atmospheric wooziness from Scott Tibbs' electronic keyboards and later featured his expansive solo.

Guitarist Fareed Haque is known hereabouts for his stellar work with Garaj Mahal and the Indianapolis-based duumvirate Rob Dixon and the late Mel Rhyne (the Dixon-Rhyne Project). He is focused on guitar sound, with respect paid to the acoustic end of the spectrum, and his rhythmic aplomb matches Cobham's. No matter how strenuously  he unleashed his most vigorous playing Saturday night, he remained happily free of the Grimacing Guitarist affliction.

It remains to celebrate the group's leader and senior citizen. Cobham uses the vastness of his kit as a percussion orchestra. He is capable of overwhelming a room with a barrage, but his fourth set in the Jazz Kitchen engagement kept making clear how well he directs his wit and energy. A cymbal stroke will highlight an ensemble accent, and the play of cymbals in the drum set's upper register is anchored in the chthonic energy of two expertly managed bass drums. Toms and snares kept up a constant dialogue in the middle.

As his longest solo of the night evinced, he can set rhythmic patterns at cross purposes with each other, yet somehow bring them together at length to give a unified impression. He always seemed mindful that detonation alone is far from the deepest impression jazz drumming should leave. There should always be something held in reserve, and some articulate interior messages free to hold sway from time to time against the monster moments.

[Photo by Mark Sheldon]

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Celebrating James Still's 20 years as playwright-in-residence, IRT brings back "Looking Over the President's Shoulder"

One hopes Indiana Repertory Theatre, in the 500th production of its history, can attract a young crowd to the 20th-century American history play James Still has put together from the memoir of Alonzo Fields, White House chief butler to four presidents.

"Looking Over the President's Shoulder" also had David Alan Anderson in its sole role in 2008. In its opening-night reprise Friday on the Upper Stage, murmurs of recognition from the audience were frequent as Anderson's Fields plumbed his capacious memory for anecdotes of chief executives from Herbert Hoover through Dwight Eisenhower and the times they helped shape and that shaped them.
David Alan Anderson as Alonzo Fields

In a span of consequential years from 1931 to 1953, Fields also had the opportunity to store up impressions of Great Britain's king and queen and its most famous prime minister of recent history, Winston Churchill. And among celebrities ranging from Hollywood's Errol Flynn to Marie Dressler, one White House visitor had for him particular resonance, both literal and metaphorical: Marian Anderson.

The Indiana-born Fields, raised in a self-sufficient African-American small town, harbored serious ambitions to make a career out of opera and concert singing, much like the famous contralto. His nurturing upbringing gave him a resilience that stood him in good stead when he felt that accepting an offer to join the White House staff was prudent as the Depression tightened its grip on most Americans. The dream sustained him, however. And of course he had first-hand knowledge of racism apart from the public sphere in which Marian Anderson encountered it. His way forward was to be the best kind of servant in the most prestigious job, drawing upon both patriotism and personal pride.

Fields has a lot to say, and it would have felt tedious for Still as playwright to lard his script with explanations. Nor would it have been appropriate for him to range outside Fields' point of view: When the butler praises Franklin Roosevelt for his evident conviction that "the White House belonged to all the people," the unbidden rejoinder that comes to mind — "except for Japanese-American citizens on the West Coast" —  must be dismissed. "Looking Over the President's Shoulder" is only in part a history lesson; it is principally a studiously yet vividly limned portrait of a remarkable historical figure.

Three years ago, I said of the actor's performance in IRT's "What I Learned in Paris" by Pearl Cleage:  "Anderson adds to his admirable record of filling to the max portrayals of men to be reckoned with." He extends that record here. Directed by Janet Allen, he is reflective and boisterous, acutely observant and wryly amused, as the narrative requires. He is a deft mimic: I won't soon forget his Eleanor Roosevelt or his Churchill (though I wonder if the real Churchill had such trouble standing erect).

Spare, elegant, and leaving lots of room for the audience's imagination to fill the gaps, Robert M. Koharchik's scenic design was eloquently supplemented by Chris Berchild's projections of historical photographs behind Anderson. A period chair for each of the presidents Fields served was brought into place as the show progressed; each of them carried a marvelous aura given substance by the actor's well-modulated words. Recorded music and sound were timely and just as restrained as they needed to be: Fields' reminiscences, as molded by Still and interpreted by Anderson, rightly commanded the stage. (It's rare when a spoiler comes in the form of a design element, so I won't describe the stunning one in the final scene. Suffice it to say that a concluding  ex machina doesn't always have to be a deus.)

As I watched, the unwelcome mental distraction of the current Chief Executive that troubled me from time to time is no fault of this amazing production. And allowing for the degree to which the shrewd, buoyant personality of Fields idealized Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower somewhat — with Truman held in justifiably high regard — "Looking Over the President's Shoulder" bears the stamp of genuine experience. It will bring substance and dignity to set against understandable suspicion among younger baby boomers, millennials, and Generation Whatever that the Oval Office has become the center ring in a dismal circus.

[Photo by Drew Endicott]