Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Double silver: Two competition medalists share an IVCI Laureate Series concert

Tessa Lark and Peter Klimo won major international awards in 2014.
Two substantial sonatas for violin and piano occupied conspicuous positions at either end of a recital presented Tuesday night by Tessa Lark and Peter Klimo. Richard Strauss' youthful E-flat major sonata, op. 18, brought the event at the Indiana History Center to a rousing conclusion. Sergei Prokofiev's Sonata No. 2 in D major, op. 94a, opened the concert, presented under the auspices of the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis.

As accomplished as the Strauss sonata is for a composer who had so many great works ahead of him, the music bursts at the seams. It's no surprise that, at 23, the future master of opera and the symphonic poem wrote no more chamber music after this sonata. In their performance, Lark and Klimo forged a strong partnership that acknowledged the score's superheroic reach, reveling in the variety of expression and musical material. The unusually titled slow movement, "Improvisation," displayed the right atmosphere of spontaneity and even capriciousness. The finale, with its vaulting rondo theme, surged and subsided in turn and put a seal on the partnership of silver medalists in two 2014 compeititions: Klimo won his prize in the Franz Liszt in Utrecht; Lark, in that year's IVCI.

My impression of the Prokofiev performance was somewhat less favorable. Nothing failed the violinist technically (except for some smeary ascending figures in the Scherzo); indeed, the wide intervals in the slow movement's melody were managed smoothly and with keenly felt lyricism. But her intensity seemed somewhat unidiomatic. Though Lark and Klimo worked together well, it sounded as if the pianist had a more appropriate light touch.

Prokofiev's romanticized modernism is not always in sync with artists of unabashed romantic temperament; there's a touch of irony about him, a holding of emotion at arm's length.  Temperamentally romantic is the kind of violinist Lark seems to be. Her encore, an arrangement of a Mendelssohn "Song Without Words" offered in tribute to Josef Gingold, whose Stradivarius is on loan to her through IVCI, was sufficient indication of that. And that confirmed the flair she exhibited for Fritz Kreisler's "Viennese Rhapsodic Fantasietta," where she captivated with gorgeous low-lying melodies at the outset.

Back to the Prokofiev sonata: It's salutary to remember that the work was originally for flute and piano. I'm allowing for the possibility that Lark knows that version. I'm just saying that as a listener the temporal priority of the flute version is not irrelevant. The floating, buoyant sound of the flute leaves an imprint on a work that of course is fully acceptable in the latter version. Admittedly it's an open question: Should violists working on Brahms' two sonatas for their instrument with piano know the clarinet-piano original? Should cellists understandably attracted to the version Jules Delsart made of Cesar Franck's violin sonata have the sound of the original somewhere in their heads? I think the answer is "yes," even though the three examples I cite were either penned by the composers and/or approved by them for publication. Thus, they don't need to stand in the shadow of the originals, but the originals must somehow be part of the interpretive process that (in order) violinists, violists, and cellists undertake.

As for the rest of the concert, Lark showed she's by no means hemmed in by romanticism in her performance of Telemann's compact unaccompanied  Fantasia No. 4 in D major. Both that Baroque work and the Kreisler are on a forthcoming CD spotlighting fantasias, a program likely to display the attractive breadth of Lark's playing.

Klimo offered two unaccompanied pieces. One of them, Liszt's "Benediction de Dieu dans la solitude," put forward expansively his prizewinning affinity for the Hungarian composer. The work requires a patient sojourn through the mystical side of Liszt, whose life and music encompasses so much of both heavenly and hellish perspectives. There's a wealth of delicate figuration that has to be brought forth with as much significance as the broad theme that prefigures the kind of "endless melody" for which his son-in-law, Richard Wagner, was famous. A luminous devotion to Liszt-at-prayer seemed complete in Klimo's performance.

The other piece was Marc-Andre Hamelin's sly, effusive tribute to Domenico Scarlatti's binary keyboard sonatas, Etude No. 6 in D minor. Sharing a birth year with Tuesday's birthday boy, J.S. Bach, Scarlatti poured out freshly designed masterpieces by the dozen while serving the Spanish court. Hamelin's witty replication of his model's style, spiced with dissonance (including tone clusters) and repetitive figures, was boldly yet tidily stated in Klimo's performance. Besides its usefulness as a complex etude, the piece seems to comment on the intricacy of serving royalty successfully during its European heyday.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

"Row After Row": The 51st state of professionally led readings in the Indy Actors' Playground series

The enthralling series of actor-selected plays read for small audiences at Indy Reads Books marked No. 51 Monday night.

Indy Actors' Playground, a project shepherded by Lou Harry in partnership with, at first, Bill Simmons, now with Paul Hansen,
brought forward Rob Johansen's choice of "Row After Row," by Jessica Dickey. About once a year, I seem to quell anxiety about reviewing a presentation clearly marketed as recreation for the local acting community. That seems right, I guess, though I've enjoyed a few other readings I decided not to blog about. My previous Indy Actors' Playground posts, one from 2015, one from 2016, can be accessed here and also here.

Johansen has a knack for finding the grotesque charm in obsessed characters, and so he does as the intensely committed, detail-obsessed Civil War re-enactor Cal in "Row After Row." With the able assistance of Jen Johansen and Mike Floyd, who have similar time-traveling, character-shifting requirements, the three actors fold into the performance intermittent portraits of people caught up in the bloody, consequential events at Gettysburg in early July 1863.
Jessica Dickey, author of "Row After Row"

Dickey mines a lot of the comic disconnect between nerds and the real world in the early scenes of this one-act. Cal needs lessons in perspective and civility from his uneasy pal Tom in treating Leah, whose initial offense is having taken a seat at their favorite table before the men arrive at a Gettysburg bar for post-reenactment refreshment. The dialogue bristles with tension that entangles sexism and authenticity. Leah holds her own from the start, and eventually Tom has one of those "bursting" moments of a quiet character that make drama so exciting.

When Civil War actuality washes over these characters. they embody people that resonate somehow with their 21st-century selves. Dickey manages this quite well. The wartime dialogue, while fiercely reflective of war's epic distractions from normality, attains a lyricism reminiscent of the Civil War poetry and prose of Walt Whitman. Particularly vivid is Cal's transformation into General Longstreet, the Confederate leader caught up in one of Robert E. Lee's colossal mistakes that's become known as Pickett's Charge.

"Authenticity ain't cheap" is a line in the play that comes to mean not only the outsize financial costs of this hobby but also  the psychological price of toggling between two worlds — worlds of jarring contrast that happen to occupy the same turf more than a century-and-a-half apart.

A recent study I heard about (on NPR, naturally) contrasted the wartime memories of veterans afflicted with PTSD and those who saw combat but remained free of that illness. Over time, the latter group put their memories in the context of bonding around a common effort, with a glow of heroism. Each time their reminiscences were recorded, they changed in this rosy direction. The accounts of PTSD sufferers, however, always remained the same, in harrowing detail. It's also been established that all memories of people roughly within the mentally healthy spectrum are unconsciously revised with each retelling. It's no figure of speech to say we are truly authors of our own lives, even as we believe we're being honest about them.

Dickey's Civil War re-enactors exemplify this habit within the conventions of the exacting discipline of historical re-enactment. Through the participants' expensive hobby, the exhilaration and terror of warfare resonate with their personal fears, hang-ups and the tenuous promise of joy and fulfillment. Grounded in this reality and neatly balanced between comedy and pathos, "Row After Row" deserves to be staged here.

Monday, March 20, 2017

St. Paul's Music brings a distinguished conductor back to the podium for Haydn's "Lord Nelson" Mass

Peril in the wider world often has an impact on artistic creation. When Joseph Haydn composed his Missa in angustiis (a title
variously translated as "Mass in Time of Fear," "Mass in Time of Peril," "Mass Amidst Difficulties," and "Mass in a Time of Anxiety"), Napoleon was on a roll and was about to conquer Egypt.

Joseph Flummerfelt conducted the 'Nelson' Mass.
The work speaks to us to today mainly because its forcefulness is joined to a high level of inspiration from a master musician widely regarded in 1798 as Europe's best composer. After  Lord Nelson commanded a decisive naval victory over Napoleon's forces where the Nile empties into the Mediterranean, the work was performed in his honor when the British war hero in 1800 visited the Esterhazy palace where Haydn had been profitably situated for decades. Nelson's name became attached understandably to a piece whose Latin title has proved resistant to a definitive English translation.

St. Paul's Music at St. Paul's Episcopal Church presented the work under the direction of Joseph Flummerfelt, a  choral conductor renowned chiefly for his many years as artistic director and principal conductor of Westminster Choir College in Princeton, N.J. Now retired, the Vincennes native and DePauw University alumnus lives in Indianapolis. Flummerfelt's Westminster position and the excellence of his choirs made him a frequent collaborator with many eminent conductors, including Leonard Bernstein, Kurt Masur, and Riccardo Muti.

Sunday afternoon's performance captured the splendor of a work the pre-eminent Haydn scholar H.C. Robbins Landon called "arguably Haydn's greatest single composition." The scoring has no woodwinds in the original, though a flutist, two oboists, and a bassoonist were used at St. Paul's in the "normalized" version often heard, and the organ part scrapped. The result brings trumpets and kettledrums to the fore.

His patron's downsizing of the Esterhazy orchestra is said to be responsible for the unusual absence of horns and woodwinds, and it perhaps encouraged the composer to give a military cast to his setting to reflect the peril, fear, difficulties, and anxieties of his title. The strings could fruitfully have been a little larger, but on the whole the liveliness and contrapuntal richness of the accompaniment came through adequately. The arching violin lines in "Et incarnatus est" were nicely defined.

St. Paul's Choir made a unified impact, and showed its capability to remain balanced across sudden dynamic shifts, such as that between the hushed first part of the Sanctus and the exultant lines beginning "Pleni sunt coeli." The opening "Kyrie" was sufficiently powerful, and the "Gloria" ecstatic. The rhetoric of praise in the two lines beginning "Laudamus te" received soaring commitment from the sopranos. Evidence of thorough preparation by St. Paul's staff directors was consistent; a slightly ragged cutoff in the "Amen" concluding "Quoniam tu solus" was the performance's only rough spot

The temptation to prefer operatic voices in the solo parts is not misplaced, I think. Sacred music in Vienna's Classical era was heavily under the influence of Italian styles, which tended toward a flamboyance unknown in the North German heritage best represented by Bach. Flummerfelt's soloists embodied the operatic style well, except for the most dominant one, soprano Tabitha Burchett. A fuller blossoming quality would have been welcome, something on the order of what we heard from mezzo-soprano Rachel K. Evans, tenor Bille Bruley, and bass Jonathan Bryan.

Before the "Lord Nelson," the choir had a showcase of its own, Mozart's "Ave verum corpus," in which its warmth of expression and fully supported phrasing suited the motet's sublimity. That was preceded by a clergyman's welcome, whose genuine hospitality seemed unnecessarily intensified by his insistence that the concert was being presented as an act of worship in which the audience was a participant. A concert of sacred music will of course communicate something extra to believers, but can best be taken in on its artistic merits by everyone else. A church's musical outreach to the larger community deserves gratitude, but not an implied commitment in return to its institutional mission.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Grappling with the question of "Shostakovich triumphant" at an ISO concert

Joshua Weilerstein: Affable, capable and with a message to deliver.
Guest conductor Joshua Weilerstein, slender, boyish and wavy-haired, gave a little speech from the podium Saturday evening before he led the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 in D minor.

It's bold to put into words the effect one wants to have on an audience before delivering the effect musically, but conductors like to try it with problematic pieces. Mario Venzago made a habit of such explanations, and Krzysztof Urbanski, his successor as music director, has gotten more comfortable doing so.

The talk was quite apropos, as the Shostakovich Fifth emerged out of social and political conditions unimaginable (so far!) to Americans today. How to take it for what it meant in 1937 can provide guidance to its significance in 2017. In brief, Weilerstein described the work's origin as the composer's attempt to remove himself from danger, and keep at least his career alive, after having displeased Josef Stalin with an edgy opera premiered the year before. And he ended up trumping Stalin (pun unavoidable), or did he?
Influential LP cover (not my copy, which was monaural, and has gone missing)

The oft-quoted subtitle, now believed to have been provided for Shostakovich, not by him, usually runs like this: "A Soviet artist's creative reply to justified criticism." Until the publication of Solomon Volkov's "Testimony" in 1979, a book purported to be the composer's memoir, the humility in that subtitle was taken at face value, and the music's progress from difficulty through despair to triumph was seen as self-evident.

Volkov had Shostakovich saying "all my symphonies are tombstones," and the ending of the Fifth is supposed to convey forced joy. Like so many other listeners, I took the work as a successful apology subsumed in a patriotic statement, monumental and artistically worthy (though Shostakovich has long had eminent detractors, like the late Pierre Boulez, who dismissed his music as "a bunch of cliches").

As a teenager, I owned and often listened to Leonard Bernstein's recording with the New York Philharmonic and readily subscribed to the "self-evident triumph" interpretation. His tempos were on the fast side (except for the Largo, of course), and though I no longer have the LP, I remember his approach to the second movement (Allegretto) was buoyant and bouncy, not sardonic (as Weilerstein described it, proceeding to elicit such an interpretation).

In those days, one often listened to records while gazing at the cover art. In this case that was a photo of Bernstein gripping the hand of the composer after a performance of the work on the Philharmonic's Soviet Union tour. And the normally dour Shostakovich is smiling! So I naively identified happiness as the work's authentic, hard-earned outcome. Besides, I was already familiar with the equally genuine ascent toward transcendent joy in the symphonic tradition launched by Beethoven's third, fifth and ninth symphonies.

I now mostly accept Weilerstein's conviction that any triumph that emerges in the work is of the nose-thumbing variety. What a self-absorbed tyrant may take for a celebration of life in his country is, in this view, a surreptitious assault hammered home at an unsuspecting philistine autocrat. In this regard, it's pertinent to note that one commentator on the work, D. Kern Holoman, renders the famous subtitle as "a Soviet artist's practical creative reply to justified criticism." In the context of all I've just said, the word "practical" speaks volumes.

The ISO played the piece with its recent adaptability to visiting maestros fully in evidence. The long, slow opening of the work managed to convey tentativeness emotionally without being tentatively executed.  When the piano and low horns bring on the fast tempo, the effect was galvanizing. In the Allegretto, the way small figures are flipped around (the flute seems to go  "yoo-hoo!") had the sardonic quality Weilerstein had promised, particularly in the horn melody.

After the Largo rises to a huge climax, the return to the movement's opening mood was as enchanting as the memory of a disturbing dream. The string sections' command of pianissimo has been well taught them by Venzago and Urbanski. The general onslaught of the finale was quite rapid, but flexible; perhaps Raymond Leppard's attention to the movement's tempo shifts was more scrupulous (in the version included in the "Indianapolis On-the-Air" series), but Weilerstein didn't just plow ahead. He avoided broadening the tempo at the very end, a mistake that tends to emblazon that face-value notion of socially acceptable triumph. The music surged forward, and for me, the composer saves his flipping off of the Soviet leader for when the bass drum underlines the timpani at the very end: "This is for you, Uncle Joe!" And so it was played Saturday night, triple forte but in effect as loud as possible.
Renaud Capucon could hardly have been more suitable to render Bernstein's "Serenade."

The concert's first half confirmed the guest maestro's affinity for modern music. The Shostakovich Fifth was the program's oldest piece. In 1954, Leonard Bernstein wrote "Serenade After Plato's Symposium," a top-drawer reflection for violin and orchestra based on the most substantial Platonic dialogue. (The Republic is in dialogue form, but only as a formality; the liveliness of actual conversation adheres to Symposium, a dinnertime chat in depth about love.)

The five-movement piece is probably Bernstein's most accomplished piece, not counting his stage works. Guest violinist  Renaud Capucon seemed the ideal interpreter. From the opening notes of Phaedras: Pausanias on, his playing emphasized a kind of classical restraint while enfolding the sort of extroverted warmth characteristic of Bernstein. His tone had stature and consistency. He seemed to display the French temperament of holding emotion within bounds without veiling it. The contour of the melody in the first movement called to mind the music Bernstein was to write for Maria in "West Side Story" just a few years later. The way the slow movement (Agathon) ended was a breathtaking achievement. The jazzy revels in the finale as Alcibiades and his buddies crash the party sparkled, and Capucon's dialogue with the solo cello of Austin Huntington in that movement couldn't have been truer to Socratic give-and-take.

To open the concert, John Adams' "Short Ride in a Fast Machine" introduced the vast canvases painted by Bernstein and Shostakovich with compact energy. The 1986 piece is an exhilarating five-minute ride. It's the kind of work about which it's hard to know when it is about to go off the rails. It's pretty clear it didn't, but any close calls will have to remain the performers' closely kept secret. It prepared the large, enthusiastic audience for just about anything. And that's exactly what they were to get, in good measure.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Gary Burton and Makoto Ozone mark the end of an era at the Jazz Kitchen

For a half-century, Gary Burton created and upheld a personal style as well as a high standard on his instrument— one perpetually out of the mainstream in jazz, despite stellar contributions 70 to 80 years ago by Red Norvo and Lionel Hampton.

Gary Burton and Makoto Ozone are capping 34 years of playing together.
The vibraphone, fluently broadening its textural richness with his four-mallet technique, has had no more durable a proponent than Burton, born 74 years ago in Anderson and, as of March 17, ending his U.S. career in his home state in a duo appearance with pianist Makoto Ozone at the Jazz Kitchen.

The first set Friday night found the well-established Northside club packed, with an audience including Burton's longtime manager, Ted Kurland, from Boston. At the end of the set, Lewis Ricci of the Indiana Arts Commission read a proclamation from the governor that in effect put a localized Gary Burton layer over St. Patrick's Day. And Jazz Kitchen proprietor David Allee presented the retiring star with a framed color photograph of the musician in action a number of years back at the Indy Jazz Fest. The honors were the icing on the cake of the warm reception the duo got from the crowd.

The Burton-Ozone partnership goes back 34 years, the Japanese pianist noted in remarks from the bandstand. Soon after Ozone's graduation from the Berklee College of Music, where Burton enjoyed a long run as a faculty member, he started working professionally with the vibraphonist. The rapport, brought up to date by the current tour, of which Indianapolis was the final stop, was evident from the first phrase on.

In a phone interview I conducted with Burton last week, the older musician praised Ozone for the breadth of his musical interests and the great range which that has given their collaboration over the years. A sign of that Friday night was their arrangement of the first movement ("Prelude") of "Le Tombeau de Couperin," an inspired match of Ravel's flowing music to their respective instruments that wove into the original some improvisation that didn't violate the idiom. It was one of the few successful attempts to give a jazz spin to a classical piece that I've heard in years.

When you focus on just two instruments in a jazz group, you can appreciate how well they are able to import variety and contrast all the more. In a performance of James Williams' "Soulful Bill," for example, the relaxed waltz feeling to the theme is able to take in an intensification that serves the tune well. Ozone's comping kicked this performance into high gear without pushing back against Burton's lyricism. Both players made a few of its phrases really pop toward the end, without damaging the unity of the piece's mood.

The one "American songbook" standard the duo offered was "I Hear a Rhapsody," but there was also an old jazz number associated with Benny Goodman that had both players taking flight. "Opus 1/2" gave special opportunity for Ozone to solo, paying tribute to his jazz pianist father — Goodman's no. 1 fan, according to Burton's introduction. This was a fleet swinger, so typical of the Goodman small groups, that Ozone made the most of, exhibiting nonstop virtuosity of ideas and execution.

Also fetching was a Burton original in tribute to Astor Piazzolla, the Argentine master of "the new tango" with whom the vibraphonist worked in mid-career. The duo shepherded the gentle tune astutely, fashioning a nice diminuendo, with some piquant harmonies at the end. For contrast in this well-designed program, there was a slow blues from Ozone's pen: "Test of Time," in honor of Oscar Peterson, had the duo digging deep and rocking the room, an effect heightened by a key change introducing Ozone's solo.                 

Before the boppish encore, the duo closed with Ozone's "Times Like These," a thoughtful composition with an expansive theme that offered both players lots of room to generate flurries of notes. This exquisite partnership will move on to Japan soon for 10 gigs set up before Burton's decision to retire from music-making. After those performances, the influential musician-bandleader-educator will leave music for good, citing health reasons and thus indicating the good sense that has sometimes eluded other venerated musicians who continue well past their prime. Veneration for Burton will be held in place by performances maintaining his high standards to the very end.


Friday, March 17, 2017

In 'Sex With Strangers," literary careerism threatens to founder on shoals of lust and ambition

Olivia and Ethan bond over writing....
The only time I got an author's autograph in a cheap paperback was when Kurt Vonnegut signed my just-purchased copy of "Mother Night" in an Ann Arbor bookstore.

The book disappeared from my collection decades ago, either lost or just unreturned by a borrower — I forget which. But a warning in Vonnegut's introduction to the paperback edition has stayed with me. After doubting that his books usually had "morals" (I think several can be teased out of the Hoosier Aesop's oeuvre, actually), the author put "Mother Night"'s this way: "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be."

I've always loved the boldness of that first clause: It's not "we will be taken for what we pretend to be, so..." but the absolute "we are what we pretend to be." Either formulation might well apply to Vonnegut's hero, who signs on as an American spy to broadcast on behalf of the Nazis and is unable to shed his success in that role in his post-war life.

The weight of that advice hits home in the course of Laura Eason's "Sex With Strangers," which opened in a Phoenix Theatre production Thursday night. Ethan barges in on a small writer's retreat in Michigan, late for his reservation on account of a blizzard. Immediately he's in conflict with Olivia, an anxious novelist, devoted to the printed word on paper, with a mixed record of success, deep into serious work on her new novel. Flummoxed by a storm-related interruption of connectivity, he nonetheless gains the upper hand at first. He's pumped up about his online presence, cresting on top of billowing numbers and consequent celebrity as the author of memoirish fiction, or fictionalized memoir, titled "Sex With Strangers," being just what it says it is. She's flailing somewhat in self-doubt, fretting over mediocre sales and lukewarm reviews.

..but of course that's not all.
With Ethan, the vexed Vonnegut question is, What is he pretending to be? Is he totally invested  — as an outgrowth of who he really is —  in recollections of predatory sexual behavior, counting on enough women also eager to memorialize their encounters with him to extend his celebrity? Or is he a diamond in the rough, his libido caught up in the viral, readymade marketing of Smashwords and KDP, but yearning for a reputation of old-media respectability in a new-media environment.

Angela Plank and Brandon Alstott are the couple at the center of this intersection of sexual and literary attraction, directed by Bill Simmons with symphonic sensitivity.  The play at first seems like a duet for bagpipes and kazoo, or a playground teeter-totter with the bully holding one end down periodically to disconcert the hapless kid high up on the other end. Ethan dominates at first, pressuring Olivia to call him a dick (she does) and otherwise exhibiting the control that whatever's new and daring always has over the conventional.

Indeed, for a while I was worried that the interview rhythm in the dialogue would weigh the relationship down more than advance it. But Olivia's personal agenda emerges, despite her initial distaste for Ethan. And before long, they get it on, sort of fleshing out the title of Ethan's claim to fame. A mutual respect is crafted from some pretty unpromising material; each seems to find a neediness in the other ready for them to satisfy. Both are guarded about their work, for different reasons.

The first hint of flirtation, where a real connection begins, is adeptly handled. The opening-night audience appreciated, as I did, a gesture that brings Olivia forward as someone who is going to deal with this new acquaintance somewhat on her own terms. Walking in front of Ethan at the end of the initial flirtation, OIivia casually flips her hair back. I don't know if the gesture's in the script or not, but it's perfect.

When the bulk of scenes start taking place on Olivia's home turf, a book-laden apartment, her path forward becomes clearer. It's strenuously nurtured by Ethan, but true to his nature, he pushes his advantage too far. And that gives the play its classic peripeteia — the turn of events that sets up the final situation between the two author-lovers. There's some ambiguity about that situation I won't reveal here; let's just say it has to do with the mystery contained in Vonnegut's warning.

The prolific playwright/director's knowledge seems encyclopedic about a cutthroat world in which literary stature is complicated by shifts in marketable media. Yet she never loses sight of the particularity of this couple's quest to understand each other, both as lovers and colleagues. The performances are true to that difficult process in all respects. Lauren Kreigh's costume designs deserve special mention in truly reflecting the couple's evolving relationship. The music of Prince is evocative in the interludes.

Integrity is not easily defended in many professions, but especially in one where status is so difficult to acquire, maintain and interpret. In the first volume of Paris Review "Writers at Work" interviews, Nelson Algren made a crude comparison that has stuck with me (his writing is loaded with crudeness that sticks with you). The streetwise Chicago bard distinguishes between books a writer writes for himself and those he writes for readers, meaning the market.

"If the book were your own, you'd be satisfied just to have the guy walk down the sidewalk and fall on his head. In a reader's book, you'd have him turn a double somersault." In this play, Ethan comes from the double-somersault world, Olivia from the fall-on-head one. "Sex With Strangers" suggests that this polarity will never be resolved, among either readers or writers. When the writers are also lovers, it's not only their characters who suddenly fall or turn acrobatic.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The birth of musical nationalism in the far north: Sibelius' "Kullervo," performed by the Minnesota Orchestra

Nationalism without tears: Jean Sibelius as a student in Vienna
Jean Sibelius, a composer so central to the national consciousness of his homeland, found that closeness a little uncomfortable with the huge success of "Kullervo," a sprawling symphonic poem with chorus and soloists based on the Finnish national epic, Kalevala.

He is said to have withdrawn the work from circulation shortly after its much acclaimed Helsinki premiere in 1892, though portions of it were heard over the next several years. Commentators differ on this decision and its motivation, but it's been credibly said that Sibelius' desire to build a reputation beyond Finland caused him to distance himself from the 80-minute work. And he did indeed become internationally admired, even if his best-known work, ironically, is the short symphonic poem "Finlandia," with a hymnlike melody known worldwide.

Revived in complete form in the 1970s, "Kullervo" was previously known to me in a 1995 Chandos recording by Danish forces (with two Finnish soloists) conducted by Leif Segerstam. Newly recorded and issued on the Swedish BIS label, "Kullervo" is performed by the Minnesota Orchestra (which recently emerged from a dark night of the soul caused by inept, shortsighted management), with music director Osmo Vänskä conducting. He enjoys for the occasion the participation of fellow Finns: soloists Lilli Paasikivi, mezzo-soprano, and Tommi Hakala, baritone, plus the stunningly accomplished YL Male Voice Choir.

I won't dwell here on many aspects of the earlier recording that still appeal to me. The sound is somewhat clearer, with less warmth than the new version. But as I understand the work, warmth is not the highest virtue in interpreting this remarkable music. The 25-year-old composer makes musically epic the tragic story of a vengeful warrior hero consumed by guilt for seducing a maiden who turns out to be his sister. Sibelius works with the heritage of musical romanticism idiosyncratically, and there is a kind of abstractness and straightforwardness about his treatment of the story that makes the musical handling more properly bardic (an adjective often too loosely applied to Sibelius's symphonies). His approach here is opposed to the Byronic effusions of Franz List's symphonic poems, for example.

Osmo Vänskä is a homegrown Sibelius advocate.
I can't fault Vänskä's interpretation of music he knows so well, and I'm reviewing without a score. I just feel a little coldness of manner, a proto-modernist emotional distance, suitable for the story — and for its abstract meaning of the folly and confusion of primitive warfare and missions of vengeance. And I'm not trotting out the Arctic Circle cliches common in discussing Sibelius in bringing up the relative coldness of Segerstam's version. The slight burr of the Minnesota sound may be attributable to the hall or the tastes of the recording engineers.

Vänskä and the Minnesotans are particularly impressive in the second movement, "Kullervo's Youth." especially in the sturdiness and billowing shapeliness of the string phrasing. The third movement, "Kullervo and His Sister," introduces the two soloists and the chorus. The narrative element is central here, expressed in an expressively repetitious yet inexorably advancing text. The Finnish poetry, though probably totally unfamiliar to Americans, will connect with those who know Longfellow's "Hiawatha," since the American poet borrowed the meter from "Kalevala." The effect of this meter in our language has been both mocked and admired; Longfellow was an expert metrical technician.

The soloists are vigorously capable of representing the two main characters (plus the first two maidens the hero encounters before the fateful meeting with his sister). The listener feels in the grip of ancient passions and the force of destiny, to borrow a Verdi opera title.  The YL singers produce some of most forceful, unified male choral singing you are ever likely to hear. They return in the finale, which is overloaded with the young composer's feeling his oats rather too strenuously, as he underlines overemphatically the bitter tragedy of Kullervo's shame and suicide.

The Finnish men return in the concluding item in the second disc, a rousing performance of "Finlandia," singing the text later added to Sibelius' immortal tune. The fast orchestral portions of the work are dispatched with rare illumination and energy, qualities that no doubt combined with the audience's love of that big melody to draw a huge ovation from the February 2016 audience in Minneapolis' Orchestra Hall.

The first part of the Disc 2 is a new work, commissioned by the orchestra: Olli Kortekangas' "Migrations," conceived as a companion piece to "Kullervo" — it makes use of the estimable Paasikivi and the YL Male Voice Choir, singing an English text by the Minnesota poet Sheila Packa. "Migrations" handles movingly the ambiguity and tension of movement across national borders — a network of issues even more timely than when this piece was completed in 2014.

Nationalism is also timely, and it's further ironic that nationalism hung like an albatross around the neck of Sibelius' posthumous reputation. "In 1965," wrote Harold C. Schonberg in his "Lives of the Great Composers" (1970), "the centenary of his birth arrived with all the force of a feather against an iron anvil." Near the end of his chapter "European Nationalists," the estimable critic comes to a more charitable conclusion: "In years to come the chances are that the music of Sibelius will occupy a more prominent place than it currently does." If that's true — and Schonberg's prediction is getting a bit long in the tooth — no small part of that prominence will be due to the advocacy of Osmo Vänskä and his hardy Minnesotans, as evidenced in this recording.