Sunday, March 18, 2018

All-orchestral program focuses on guest conductor's affinity with three eras

No concerto soloists required guest conductor Matthew Halls to share the limelight in this weekend's Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra concerts.
Halls: British conductor makes his mark here.

The British conductor proved worth the focus as he led Saturday evening's program of J.S.Bach, James MacMillan, and Jan Sibelius at Hilbert Circle Theatre.

MacMillan is a prolific Scotsman who seems to have increased presence on American concert programs recently. In February I heard the American premiere of his Trombone Concerto in a Dallas Symphony Orchestra concert. I found the work so exciting that I'll admit paying insufficient attention to the Tchaikovsky "Pathetique" Symphony that followed intermission. I like that piece well enough, but MacMillan's arresting musical rhetoric still had command of my mind. (The conductor, Gustavo Gimeno, will make his ISO debut here in April.)

MacMillan's Veni, veni, Emmanuel, a percussion concerto, has been performed twice in Indianapolis — once with its dedicatee, Evelyn Glennie, as soloist, then by Colin Currie. And one of his string quartets has been chosen to mark the last Juilliard Quartet performance of first violinist Joseph Lin this spring in New York. He will be succeeded by Areta Zhulla.

On Thursday and Saturday, Halls led Sinfonietta, a 19-minute work whose title betokens both one-movement form and a reduced orchestra. Apart from strings, a wide variety of instruments is represented by a single voice each. A keening soprano saxophone makes an initial impression over a lighter-than-air string accompaniment. The calming mood lasts for just long enough for a fortissimo rip in the fabric to shock the ears.

That interruption turns out to be persistent, soon becoming both florid and chaotic. It's as if Charles Ives had wandered into Stravinsky's "Shrovetide Fair" ("Petrushka") and became disoriented by funhouse mirrors. Typical of the MacMillan works I've heard, there's a nurtured beauty that has to contend with threats and challenges. In this case, the ethereal music returns, taking on an even higher place in the heavens, as it ends with a repeated utmost-octave note from the piano. The effect was marred Saturday night by an ill-timed cellphone ring from somewhere in the audience.

Until last September, Halls was artistic director of the Oregon Bach Festival. From what I've read of his dismissal, he may have been a victim of an oversensitive aspect of the #MeToo movement. Management responded at first to a ridiculously exaggerated report of a joke Halls made to a black soloist, but was mainly pushed to push him out by a few "hostile work-environment" charges, accounts of which don't give much basis for coming down definitively on the side of either party. A settlement proscribes both the OBF and Halls from further comment in self-defense.

This is by way of introducing his genuine claim to conduct Bach with a modern orchestra. The great Baroque composer tends to be overlooked in symphony schedules, a consequence of the triumph of "authenticity." The neglect goes back many decades, and explains why Leopold Stokowski felt compelled to orchestrate some of the Saxon master's music. The vogue for these transcriptions has long passed; the ISO last played the 1922 Stokowski-Bach Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor in 1973.

Judging from the response Saturday night to the ISO's performance of that magnificent organ work, such arrangements come across well and have merits far from the shadow of travesty they're sometimes represented as being under. The audience ate this one up. Much credit goes to Hall's astute management of balance and tempo. The broadening near the end of the fugue complemented the splendor of the orchestration. Throughout, Halls displayed insight into the peculiar blend of spectacle and probity that could well sum up the imposition of Stokowski on top of Bach.

The concert opened with a crisp, lively account of Bach's Orchestra Suite No. 3. There were signs of struggle as the ISO fought to maintain the fast pace Halls set for the fast section of the Overture. Concertmaster Zach De Pue handled the violin solos with aplomb. And the ISO's trumpet section sounded brilliant wherever it was required to shine.

Halls had the well-known Air, the suite's second movement, nicely modulated with reduced strings the first time through, then supplemented by the full complement. The Bourree seemed to test the orchestra again, but the rapid pace certainly set up the quick segue into the concluding Gigue well.

After intermission came the "in-between" selection: the personalized late romanticism of Sibelius' Symphony No. 5 in E-flat major. The mastery of tempo fluctuations Halls displayed in Bach served him well here: The transition to Presto, then more Presto, in the first movement was precisely judged and quite exciting.The second movement is pervaded by subtle shifts that were handled adroitly in this performance.

In the first movement, where the composer seems to be working out a few ideas that can take you a while to realize aren't introductory but substantive, the initial phrase of the horns was somewhat tentative. But the wind band soon sounded self-assured. Sibelius' writing for winds often seems to be a little precious, self-involved, somewhat boutique-y, like something you might find in the Carmel Arts District.

But such stuff is part of the Sibelius signature. The music historian Jan Swafford makes the witty comment that, like Dylan Thomas' poetry, Sibelius' symphonies sound greater than they are.  That thought struck me in the evanescent second movement, with its fleeting sentimentality and hints of Brahms and even Puccini. After that allure, what does it all really amount to? Pure Sibelius, for sure.

The finale was taken at a rapid clip, and the strings' sotto voce scurrying sounded really unified. All the colors in Sibelius' rather restrained palette were brought into view vividly. Halls handled the momentum of the last movement quite well, as its expansive lyricism and a catchy, pervasive rocking figure moved to a climax amid the scurrying. Never have those drastically spaced final six chords made more sense to me as the perfect way to punctuate and bring to finality all that roiling energy.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Herald of spring: Well-seasoned quintet jazz from tenor saxophonist Ben Wendel

Out of a project inspired by a Tchaikovsky suite for solo piano, saxophonist Ben Wendel was inspired
Aaron Parks (left), for whom Ben Wendel's "November" was written.
to write a piece for each month of the year, dedicating each to a musician he admires. As a jazz specialist, the writing was a launching pad for duo performances incorporating improvisational  freedom, in which each honoree participated as a performing partner with Wendel.

Expanded to a quintet format, the compositions became the basis for Wendel's "Seasons" band, which played two sets Friday night at the Jazz Kitchen. Filling out the group were some illustrious young players, with a locally boosted star, Aaron Parks, at the piano. Parks was 2001 Cole Porter Fellow of the Indianapolis-based American Pianists Association. Other "Seasons" personnel: Gilad Hekselman, guitar; Matt Brewer, bass, and Kendrick Scott, drums.

Textures of Wendel compositions are dense, but the group's internal rapport ensures that everything flows. For example, "November," written for Parks, allowed the pianist to wax introspective in an unaccompanied introduction. When the full band came in, there was an ingrained moodiness to the material, with Scott laying down a propulsive backbeat. That encouraged bluesy inflections in the solos, which were interspersed with ensemble returns. It was down-home goes to graduate school. The performance ended with a long diminuendo as a four-note tag marked the settling down.

Wendel sounded comfortable in all ranges of his horn, and folded into his playing a wealth of curlicues and flourishes. "May" displayed the positive buoyancy of his muse, with lots of ornamentation. Hekselman's solo took an exotic turn. The general favoritism toward up-tempo pieces was interrupted by "August," with its long tones and a sparkling Parks solo niftily accompanied by Scott's hand-drumming.

"October," written for Hekselman, gave the timbre-sensitive guitarist a chance to make a gamelan-like excursion in his solo that soon morphed into an Afrobeat vibe as the ensemble entered. "July" was notable for a titanic yet coherent bass solo, as well as for a tasty coda punctuated by Scott's precise patterning on rims.

The last piece of the first set was the one tune not taken from Wendel's "Seasons" project. "Unforeseeable" started with crisp solo drums and cymbals, with Brewer soon putting a foundation underneath the percussive churning. The piece drew hearty applause and whoops and demands for an encore. That entailed a return to the monthly theme, as "April," written for the drummer Eric Harland, was put on display, with naturally a more intense focus on the estimable Scott.

Relaxed and amiable in his bandstand manner, Wendel draws from his sidemen the same attention to taking care of business that he demands of himself. No one stays idle for long in this band, yet the listener doesn't get the impression of clutter. The sound is high-powered, but there's always something new to absorb and enjoy. Whatever the season, this isn't the sort of impactful music that tempts you to say: "OK, very good — now give me a break!" It's rather like: "Let's have some more."

Time is on somebody's side, but french fries are right on the side of a burger order

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Networking magic helps save joint Ensemble Music Society/IVCI concert at Landmarks Center

Last weekend's wintry weather on the East Coast took an unexpected toll when pianist Joseph Kalichstein fell on ice in New York and suffered a broken arm.

Jaime Laredo, Sharon Robinson, Soovin Kim, Gloria Chien
This forced some quick action on the part of the two venerable musical organizations behind the highly anticipated Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio Tuesday night at the Indiana Landmarks Center.
Fortunately, a married couple with International Violin Competition of Indianapolis connections was available to fill the date along with the married couple that constitutes two-thirds of the scheduled trio.

2002 IVCI bronze medalist Soovin Kim and pianist Gloria Chien were brought into play with violinist/violist Jaime Laredo, president of the IVCI jury, and cellist Sharon Robinson as collaborators on a new program in the IVCI's Laureate Series. The concert, dedicated to the late IVCI patron Andrew Paine, was co-presented with Ensemble Music Society,

Music involving all four musicians opened and closed the program, both featuring Laredo on viola, his secondary instrument. In Mozart's Piano Quartet No. 2 in E-flat, K. 493, it was immediately evident that the concert's replacement pianist was much more than a desperate substitute for Kalichstein. Chien characterized the first movement beautifully, controlling pace and tone in a way that solidified the ensemble; a move into the minor mode was expertly judged, with a slight slowing and dynamic variety signaling a shift in direction.

The performance continued to be well-knit throughout: the pauses in the progress of the Larghetto were well-matched, and the slow tempo handled with no slackening of interest or forward motion. Chien also set forth the brilliance of the finale in a spirited performance with touches of humor, such as the brief grace-noted exchanges with Kim.

The concert concluded with a piece of French romanticism in full flower. The essence of Gabriel Fauré's small-scale but cogent intensity came through in the Scherzo of his Piano Quartet No. 1 in C minor, op. 15.  Plucked strings accompanied the piano in the elfin main theme, and the quartet captured well the subtle shift in the Trio section, with the strings muted. In the course of the performance, there were phrases for the viola performed in a way indicating Laredo is not a full-time violist. On the whole, this was a well-integrated, glowing account of the work.

A four-movement duo, with Laredo on his primary instrument, gave the star couple in the program a showcase. The quirky modernist Erwin Schulhoff, whose promise as a composer was snuffed out in 1942 in a Nazi death camp, got a rare outing in Indianapolis.  The violin-cello duo presented a composer attracted to middle European folk music, especially its dance rhythms, and also under the influence of Debussy's outreach beyond conventional phrasing and harmony. Passages in harmonics set up an ethereal feeling that made the first movement's peaceful ending logical. The embrace of gypsy music in Zingaresa: Allegro giocoso was rousing, and the contrasts in the finale, with motoric and songlike episodes negotiated smoothly, displayed an undimmed elan.

As a specific tribute to Paine, a banker long associated with the violin competition, Robinson and Chien played Fauré's enduring Elegie, op. 24. Robinson's large tone was nicely controlled, and the passionate weight of the middle portion was molded with a good feeling for balance by both players. The cellist's bow speed on the last note slowed expertly to allow the tender, elegiac conclusion of the piece to ring out and make the memorial dedication special.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Venus of Willendorf: The escape from Facebook purgatory of a 30,000-year-old femme fatale

Venus of Willendorf, the Venus of Willendorf! The sculpture that Facebook found naughty: Her head is covered, her face is a blank, And her flank is not the slightest bit lank. Venus of Willendorf, that ancient unthrillin’ dwarf, A maid who today would cool lust: Her Stone Age suitors have crumbled to dust, And not a la mode is her large, sagging bust But to censor all nudity is a policy must. Says Facebook of Venus of Willendorf! We might all speculate why this is her fate After being herself for so many years Few people can see why her anatomy Should encourage a bunch, if any, fears. Venus of Willendorf, the Venus of Willendorf, That Paleolithic playmate When a man of today sees her mottled complexion It’s not likely he will get an erection! Venus of Willendorf, how could such a figure morph Into a new source of desire? She speaks of fertility from head to toe But you’d have to be Paleolithic to know What she stands for means she is ready to grow The population of Willendorf! This less than five-inch-tall figurine Is far too symbolic to be obscene. So let the offended forgive the offender For exhibiting her Stone Age pudenda. She has not survived just to greet you, She’s from ages before hashtag MeToo; She can’t be harassed, even if you tried: She was made just to be objectified. Venus of Willendorf, how could such a figure morph Into a source of desire? She speaks of fertility from head to toe But you’d have to be Paleolithic to know What she stands for means she’s ready to grow The population of Willendorf!

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Honoring the ruling aesthetic of today's symphonic repertoire: ISO plays Beethoven and Dvorak

This weekend's program in the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's Classical Series sits squarely upon the mainstream repertoire. Despite many exceptions, that means the 19th century. Concerts comprising Antonin Dvorak and Ludwig van Beethoven hold up the values and procedures we have come to identify with Romanticism.

I may be in the minority in thinking that the greatest period in classical music was the 20th century. Nonetheless, I still hold the music of its predecessor dear, and a program consisting of Beethoven's "Coriolan" Overture and Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor and Dvorak's Symphony No. 7 in D minor is not a ho-hum occasion for me. I'm no cookie-cutter modernist nerd.

Nonetheless, Friday's concert under the baton of ISO music director Krzysztof Urbanski reminded me of the comfortable world within which so many music-lovers (symphony patrons in particular, not so much solo recital and chamber-music devotees) prefer to dwell. And it worked to the disadvantage of Dvorak, whose D minor symphony struck me as essentially a period piece.

The performance was lively and apparently deeply felt. The work is skillfully constructed, even if its themes are pedestrian. There are some startling details in harmony and rhythm from time to time. The Scherzo has charms that tell fitfully across the decades. But Dvorak, though here in full control of his means and ends, doesn't necessarily speak to our time. Beethoven still does.

Yefim Bronfman's return as an ISO guest artist was most welcome.
What do I mean by "period piece"? In music, it's a piece so thoroughly of its era in layout, rhetoric, and manner of expression that its pertinence to people living in 2018 is somewhat questionable. It can be brought forward now and then without harm, maybe even with new insights. But without  digressing into list-mongering, to me the Dvorak Seventh is less essential today than either his eighth or ninth symphonies (as overplayed as the latter is), and belongs on the shelf along with, say, Wagner's "Lohengrin" and Saint-Saens' "Egyptian" piano concerto. I could well add a handful of 19th-century violin concertos that remain alive largely for the display of present-day virtuoso fiddling.

The Dvorak Seventh is saturated with earnestness from stem to stern. So is the Beethoven piano concerto that Yefim Bronfman is playing with the ISO this weekend. But the C minor concerto is a work of genius, with charms and forcefulness alike that remain striking today. Dvorak was among countless composers who swam in the tide that poured from Beethoven early in his century, in this work and many others.

I liked the way Bronfman banked his fires in the first movement. He held something in reserve, but didn't understate so severely as to seem indifferent. He knew when to give a trenchant turn to a phrase or a cadence. His trills sparkled. Moments of introspection — and we know from the sketchbooks how Beethoven slaved over his songful inspirations — always seemed to provide an authentic look into the composer's soul.

A hush settled over the  Hilbert Circle Theatre audience in the second movement. The floating feeling of this Largo didn't entail a hint of shapeless drifting apart: Urbanski's coordination of the orchestra with the ever-responsive Bronfman never faltered. Largo is the slowest common tempo designation; the performance proceeded as if the movement couldn't be taken a jot faster and retain the same integrity. In the finale, each episode built logically upon what preceded it. Transitional passages were perfectly matched to the main material. Bronfman's shift to the rollicking Presto that wraps everything up was exhilarating. Called back for an encore, the pianist offered a luminous account of Debussy's Clair de lune.

The program opened with a crisp, dramatic account of the "Coriolan" Overture. Here's a work that offers another point of comparison with a Koch Classics ISO recording under Raymond Leppard's baton, like last week's Overture, Scherzo and Finale by Schumann. Not to devalue what Leppard accomplished as the ISO's fifth music director, but the orchestra has improved notably under his two successors: Mario Venzago and Urbanski. Friday's performance had a more genuine tension than the CD account because it was interpreted with a new suppleness and tonal richness, qualities that the passing years have fortunately brought to the ISO.

Literature dates faster than music, on the whole. The play that inspired the "Coriolan" Overture is a period piece; Shakespeare's play on the same Roman figure survives because it has so much to say about leadership, which can be both super-competent and tragically stubborn.  Despite its coldheartedness, "Coriolanus" speaks to the 21st century. We don't have a contemporary Coriolanus in this country now, but a tragedy based on a different set of failings might be unfolding. The best we can hope for is that this presidency will someday also be regarded as a period piece. In the political sphere, that kind is even less worth revisiting than the likes of the Dvorak D minor symphony.

Friday, March 9, 2018

In the last production in its church home, Phoenix Theatre mounts a racially charged comedy

You can make a stage play rich in silliness, but if its humor is focused on America's continuing racial divide, the silliness will evaporate like alcohol in a recipe. The matter of race is what imparts the full flavor; the fun adds a desperately desired zest.

"Fairfield," by Eric Coble, is such a play. Seen at a preview performance Thursday night on the Phoenix Theatre's Basile Stage, the two-act comedy delved deep into the contemporary American dilemma. But it rose to a climax of pure farce, and — for both good and ill —  never quite transcended a certain sit-com superficiality.

The title denotes an elementary school in a "liberal suburb," the program tells us, during Black History Month. By the end, the annual dedicated focus on African-Americans seems to be occupying the longest month rather than the shortest.

Over the intercom, Principal Wadley tries to exert control.
Careerism in public education today works to assert itself against a confusing social milieu. In "Fairfield" the initial clash on that score is between Mrs. Wadley, the school's thoroughly assimilated black principal, and first-year first-grade teacher Laurie Kaminski, a white liberal of more unbounded enthusiasm for the celebration than prudence might dictate. Wadley would rather rainbow-wash the observance, which puts her at the edge of inappropriateness just as much as Kaminski's screwball lesson plans put her.

Milicent Wright gives to Wadley a cheerful, stentorian authority. The character's facade will eventually shatter as things go awfully wrong at the school. The cheerfulness will fade, and her response to an incident in Ms. Kaminski's classroom will eventually defenestrate her instincts toward moderation. Also reduced to tatters is the idealistic banner lofted high by the first-grade teacher, played with an overflowing ebullience by Mara Lefler.

First-grade teacher Laurie Kaminski has some explaining to do.
More than 50 years ago, Stokely Carmichael wrote something still painful to read for its relevance today: "White America will not acknowledge that the ways in which this country sees itself are contradicted by being black." You can resolve contradictions that arise from different points of view, but not the kind that are part of identity. Yet that seems to be the attempt that's become institutionalized in the nation's public schools during February. It's a heroic effort, but it also raises so many discrepancies between intention and action, perception and reality, that comedy may be a useful way to shed light upon them.

Coble achieves quite a lot in that direction. The dialogue is witty and often laced with irony. Characters tie themselves in knots to make it evident they are on the side of the angels. Sometimes they seem closer to the fallen angels at home in Dante's hell, to which Coble makes a couple of allusions. Two couples emerge as the center of parental anger at the turmoil that grips Fairfield. They carom between offensive and defensive positions stemming from a classroom fight between their sons.

The parents of a son involved in a classroom fight confer at home.
Dwuan Watson and LaKesha Lorene play with fiery gusto the African-American parents proud of their status in the comfortable suburb, but anxious about signs that the incident may undermine it. Doug Powers and Jean Arnold are the reasonable-sounding white parents whose goodwill is fragile and often frustrated. (Powers and Watson are absolutely assured in crucial secondary roles they take on — Powers as the nervous district superintendent, Watson as a distant relative of the principal whom she brings in to offer a student assembly historical perspective, and who turns out to be an unreconstructed Black Panther.)

Both couples are at odds internally as the tension increases; both try to free themselves from
The other couple mulls over a proper response to the problem.
stereotypes with the same flailing failure as Br'er Rabbit punching the uncommunicative tar baby. I've deliberately chosen an un-p.c. comparison to point up the kind of identity contradictions Carmichael was so insightful about. In their updating of the Uncle Remus story, the Disney folks turned the tar baby into some kind of frosting-heavy cake, as I recall, to avoid giving offense.  Br'er Rabbit would get sticky, but not stuck, punching a gooey cake. His getting stuck is the point of the story. And getting stuck is what happens to the characters in "Fairfield."

I'm tempted to think Coble might have chosen the name of his school, and his play's title, from the most famous phrase in the Middle English poem "Piers Plowman." There William Langland's narrator awakens from a dream (he thinks) to see "a fair field full of folk." From that sight (and site)  the allegorical poem is launched and the dreamer adventures among these folks as they fan out across the landscape into all the joys and troubles that are the human lot in life. At its best "Fairfield" wants to present a vision of all good things that may lie ahead of us along the bright horizon; but, in racial matters, it shows we can't yet resolve all the contradictions as we drag our identities behind us.

At the other end of seriousness, the script has touches that I think of as laugh-track lines. These are
The principal is in the hot seat as her boss upbraids her.
gags that aren't exactly implausible but seem to be included for the guffaw effect. The yellow flag went up for me when Principal Wadley, in an opening scene introducing to an all-school assembly the wonders of Black History Month, brings up the word "diverse" to make sure the kids know what she wants to celebrate. One of the kids misunderstands, and she says in response something like, "No, not perverse, that's something else." I don't think even a bright smart-aleck of tender age would have shouted that. It was one of several places where I felt the comedy was at a sit-com level. If something clever or sizzly occurred to Coble, in it went.

Ansley Valentine directs this adept cast, which is occasionally required to stitch together line fragments and overlapped dialogue with the precision and speed of tennis doubles teams volleying at the net. Moving in and out among Zac Hunter's set, with its large, pale, geometric forms dominated by a tower of letter blocks, the actors are nearly flawless, with one exception: An odd paradox about farce is that when the action turns chaotic, the actors have to work with machine-tooled precision. At the preview, this cast wasn't quite there yet in the astonishing final scene. The violence looked approximate; everything in the play that led up to that was spot-on, however.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]