Tuesday, February 13, 2018

The predatory lender wants "money, honey" and the new CFPB says "Go for it!"

Money Honey Well, they texted me, they called me, rang my doorbell What they wanted from me I knew damn well: I’d borrowed a thousand from Golden Valley Lending, Now they wanted 4K — and they were unbending. It was: Money honey, un-un-huh, money honey Money honey: You got no friend at the CFPB. I said, I thought the bureau was here to protect People hard up from having their lives wrecked He said, Fairness in lending is strange and foreign; I suggest you take it up with Elizabeth Warren. I want: Money honey, un-un-huh, money honey Money honey: If you want to get along with me. When Trump won, the sun shone; now it’s looking rainy Consumer finance help’s in the hands of Mulvaney, He once called the agency “a sick, sad joke” Now he’s got the power to make sure I stay broke, And it’s: Money honey, un-un-huh, money honey To rip you off is official policy. I screamed: The bureau’s not doing its job for the nation He said, it’s about humility and moderation; I said Mulvaney feeds from the payday-lending trough With protecting consumers all bets are off. You want, Money honey, un-un-huh money honey It’s funny money, and you’re in bed with the CFPB.

Monday, February 12, 2018

East Coast Chamber Orchestra brings works for strings to IVCI Laureate Series

Susie Park (inset) and the versatile ECCO (with different personnel from Sunday's concert here)
Besides presenting a couple of the 20th-century masterpieces for string orchestra Sunday afternoon, the East Coast Chamber Orchestra (ECCO) added the local premiere of Derek Bermel's "Murmurations" and a well-worn showpiece for founding member Susie Park, a Laureate in the 2002 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis.

The IVCI Laureate Series concert at the Indiana History Center showed off the 17-year-old conductorless orchestra, a cohesive group despite regular changes of distinguished young personnel, in Bartok's Divertimento and Shostakovich's Chamber Symphony in C minor, op. 110a.

Of the Hungarian composer's works of serious mien, Divertimento is the most genial. Despite the  acerbic quality of the first-movement melodies, in the opening movement cheerfulness keeps breaking in. ECCO's performance of it honored that buoyant quality. The dour second movement had the ensemble switching gears decisively. The orchestra's command of such a broad emotional spectrum was displayed consistently in its unanimity of attack and the alert coordination of dynamics. Accents were firm and well-distributed. The folding in of soloistic elements, particularly evident in the concerto-grosso-like finale, was smooth, playful, and almost teasing.

The Shostakovich is a much-performed version of the Russian composer's eighth string quartet, an autobiographical work that's well served by the spaciousness of Rudolf Barshai's arrangement. The intensity of so much of the music attains an extra dimension when it's played by a chamber orchestra of this caliber. What can seem like overstatement when the piece is tackled by just four players moves toward simple grandeur. The occasional solos were haunting, and the stunning force of the full ensemble, given such textural variety by the 17 players, made the work's three Largo movements easier to digest.

Park was featured in Pablo de Sarasate brief character showpiece, Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Airs), op. 20 No. 1. In the suspenseful introduction, a few leaps were not quite on target, but the soloist gave lots of character and precision to a soft, fast staccato passage and the swooning glissandos that follow. The ensuing Allegro molto vivace is what sets folks' pulses racing, however, and Park and her colleagues found the right pace and spirit of abandon. Everything moved with sparkle, the left-hand pizzicatos were well-defined, and the rush to the final bar had the right feeling of freedom and impetuosity.

The Bermel premiere here came in the ECCO schedule in between Philadelphia and New York first performances of the piece, whose title denotes a flock of starlings. The movement titles had slight discrepancies in the program, but each designates a place where the composer observed the birds. The dreamy second movement had too much sugary lullaby about it, though it caught the gliding motion of the title well.

The first movement of "Murmurations" offered a charming introduction to Bermel's concept; without specifically seeing a flock before our eyes, we could sense in this music that kind of mysterious communication that conveys the very idea of "flock" to human eyes. Our earthbound forms of collective action seem much clumsier in comparison.

The finale, titled "Swarming Rome," emphasized rapid fluttering and the tug of collective movement in a context drawn from the minimalist aesthetic. The whole collection of patterns swept upward into a final outburst that drew delighted gasps from the audience. The age-old dream of flight had come alive in a new way.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

A fantasy song: Threatened by the intrusion of veganism, he says, 'I'm gonna fry me a liver!'

Carmel Symphony Orchestra heralds the love holiday with all-American concert

At home in the Paladium as the Center for the Performing Arts' local resident orchestra, the Carmel
Janna Hymes, music director
Symphony Orchestra
is adding luster to its history with a new music director in her first season.

Janna Hymes and the 85-piece ensemble delivered hearts and flowers to the CSO's supportive audience Saturday night with a concert that included a seasonally appropriate premiere, "Love Letter" by Michael Thurber, a violin concerto written for Tessa Lark, silver medalist in the 2014 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis.

Reinforcing both the American and love themes of the concert were pieces by American masters George Gershwin, Charles Ives, Leonard Bernstein, and Howard Hanson.

Hymes has elicited alert, unified playing from the orchestra, as was evidenced by the short works that preceded the concerto. Though Gershwin's Overture to "Girl Crazy," a hit show from 1930, set the celebratory mood immediately, it tucks into its heady progress the woundedness of "But Not for Me," a bittersweet reminder of feeling left out of what Valentine's Day is oversold to celebrate.

Shore leave for sailors in New York City is the milieu of "On the Town," a dance-rich early success of Bernstein's on Broadway. Love in its temporary and long-range forms trips the light fantastic, from the bumptious "Great Lover"  through the plaintive "Lonely Town" to the bustling "Times Square, 1944." The effervescence of the concluding piece was a little wild and woolly in this performance, but the spirit was properly bold.

The only other place in the concert where balance and blend seemed somewhat approximate was in Variations on
In 2014, Tessa Lark became the first American IVCI medalist in decades.
"America," a brightly bedecked arrangement for orchestra by William Schuman of Ives' youthful whimsy for pipe organ. Color contrasts, often abrupt and unprepared, and shifts of tempo and rhythm pose challenges for musicians.

When the cheeky mosaic of sounds doesn't appear entirely natural, some of the humor can be lost. For the most part, however, the Carmel players captured all the Yankee cussedness Ives sought to apply to the venerated tune whose patriotic words used to be known to every American schoolchild. The United Kingdom has recently become sole proprietor of the melody its subjects are proud to call "God Save the Queen."

The work served another purpose: as a kind of calisthenics for the demands of Hanson's Symphony No. 2 in D-flat major ("Romantic"). As easily as the piece goes down with audiences, it is challenging to bring off, threaded with mesmerizing tunes, one of them often deployed, and its wealth of turbulence and tenderness. This performance clarified a score that has its potentially muddy moments. The composer's defiance of modernism in a work intended to carry the open-hearted feeling of 19th-century symphonies into a new era was stoutly argued in a splendid account Saturday night.

That achievement couldn't dim the spotlight thrown upon Lark and the new piece written for her by doublebass player and LaPorte native Michael Thurber. In four movements of love-inspired genre painting and portraiture, Thurber has emphasized his beloved's frisky nature, her individuality and, musically, her strong affinity for country and bluegrass fiddling.

The playwright A.R. Gurney was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for "Love Letters," a great favorite of celebrity couples focusing on a fictional couple's relationship over 50 years. Thurber's similar title in the singular shows that his is one message, split four ways, reflecting on a relationship that so far is short-term. Like most new loves, it gathers impressions of the sort that are likely to form lasting memories and that will confirm the initial mutual attraction.

Thus, the music, though fresh in its presentation, has a nostalgic cast. It is up to the soloist, the object of these fond reflections, to portray herself. And Lark, a captivating performer, sounded fully committed to fleshing out the musical portrait. The performance thus succeeded in giving a localized illumination to love's perpetual two-way street. In Carmel, that doubtless includes roundabouts and "YIELD" signs — a gentle warning to all lovers.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Paul Taylor Dance Company visits Clowes Hall with three strong pieces from its vast repertoire

The Paul Taylor dance universe was subject to some focused star-gazing Friday night at Clowes Hall.
Masked and elegant: The climax of "Cloven Kingdom"
The visiting modern-dance troupe, a solid force in its field for several decades, presented a program constructed like a concerto: a challenging, attention-grabbing, fast-paced first movement; a contemplative, slow-paced Adagio, with some briskness inserted; and a finale weighted toward a memorable "message" of stress and resolution.

The program spanned 1976 to 2002, and, taken together, the works displayed the versatility of the dancers in the 18-member touring troupe. "Cloven Kingdom" made for a high-relief calling card: Its coordinated crudity and elegance are woven into unity through a striking score juxtaposing Corelli concerto grosso movements from the baroque era with percussion ensemble (Henry Cowell and Malloy Miller).

This ambitious classic requires a wide range of expressive movement, some of it sweeping and patrician, some of it evoking primitive ritual dances.  Carrying an epigraph from the Jewish Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza — "Man is a social animal" — "Cloven Kingdom" expands on wisdom that is by now a truism. The work is expansive anthropology in dance form: Through all eras, human beings find different ways to relate to one another in groups, flowing between tendencies toward equality and toward hierarchy. Headgear initially appears on one woman, dutifully attended by a female underling; eventually these odd, shiny hats are the norm as "Cloven Kingdom" approaches a collective statement.

All along the way, the impression is that trial and error, fads and evolving values, have loosely governed changes in social behavior. The white-tie-and-tails for the men, the pastel-colored, long-skirted dresses for the women speak to an aspiration toward more high-minded interaction, even at the risk of pretentious sophistication. The tension is underlined by a host of sudden reversions to tics and gestures from primitivism, even animal life. Early on, the women move bent forward, their arms at right angles, forearms down, hands back, twitching almost like insects. Statuesque figures face stonily forward; then their heads nod down and from side to side in the manner of animal self-grooming. At one point, the men hop jerkily with wide stances, facing outward. Two women link arms to twirl like folk dancers and fall simultaneously a moment later. Mating dances and ballroom dance compete on equal footing.

The effect of such flashes of primitivism is comic, but Taylor's choreography holds back from the comedy of technique. Whether Corelli or the drummers hold momentary sway, the dancing that the contrasting styles accompany is balanced and coherent, despite the wide spectrum of movement. The tour de force is an episode for the four men. Just about everything professional dancers do looks difficult to me, but the requirements here seem fantastically difficult, especially when carried out in formal wear. The abrupt, unconventional head movements alone would seem to invite injury. This quartet drew wild cheers from the audience.

"Eventide" provided a respite after the first intermission. It's a lyrical piece performed against a
The moment of rescue and revival in "Promethean Fire"
backdrop of bare trees in twilight. The dusky atmosphere is host to a series of duets framed by ensembles for the eight dancers. Stages or perhaps just aspects of couples relationships are sketched, with emphasis on depth of rapport rather than surface attraction. Flirting, abandonment, calmness and exuberance are set in soft-focus splendor to deeply centered music (much of it spearheaded by solo viola) by Ralph Vaughan Williams.

The finale, "Promethean Fire," shifted the program back to the threats and promises faced by people in the larger world. In a panel discussion the night before, one of the dancers noted that Taylor rejects the suggestion that the 2002 work was provoked by 9/11, but the veteran choreographer is known for not directing public response to his art by any verbal cues, especially topical ones. The ancient Greek half-god who defied Zeus by bringing fire to humankind is, of course, essential to understanding the work.

But what Prometheus suffered as a consequence is less dealt with here than the effect on humanity of advancing beyond what seems to have been ordained. The full company, in black costumes that emphasize uniformity, is under lighting that resembles the well-defined light and shadow of Mannerist painting. To Leopold Stokowski's garish orchestral arrangements of three pieces by J.S. Bach, the action is necessarily shaped as consequential in all respects. Survival is the goal, after which thriving may have a chance.

The striding, purposeful shifts of the troupe, the forest-like solid look of the dancers' upraised arms, and the determined, face-forward postures are subjected to blurring and disintegration. A hard-to-identify menace is at work. There's a climactic collapse at the center, then a Promethean gesture of renewal that gradually lifts the company back into collective freedom. The last few measures of music are accompanied by a sudden accession to ensemble grandeur. It seemed the perfect capstone of this extraordinary troupe's arch of triumph here.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Rust Belt blues in "Sweat," the Russell Stage finale at Phoenix's Park Avenue home

Having advanced in the workplace, Cynthia (Dena Toler) tries to explain to her friends what their employer's up to.
Reading, Pennsylvania's most eminent literary native son, Wallace Stevens, only glancingly captured his hometown and its environs in his poetry, an observation I owe to John Updike, whose hometown was Shillington, a small Reading suburb. A solid bourgeois manufacturing center that came into its own long after the poet (1879-1955) left for New York City, then Connecticut, Reading in the early 21st century could be placed in contention with many other places as a Great Recession poster child.

It's this era, in a play seesawing between 2000 and 2008, that Lynn Nottage focuses upon in
"Sweat," which won last year's Pulitzer Prize in drama. During a run from tonight through March 4, Phoenix Theatre's production will give audiences' emotions a good drubbing even as it confirms the excellence that the 35-year-old company will carry to its new home on Illinois Street later this year.

"Sweat," directed by founding producing director Bryan Fonseca, probes the difficult reality of life in a Rust Belt town contracting the lives of its inhabitants over this century's first decade. The bitterness of descending injustice, spurred by the attraction of cheaper labor as NAFTA opened up Mexico to American manufacturers, consumes the play's characters. Unlike other Rust Belt cities further west, Reading had a justifiable sense of entitlement to more protection from these wrenching changes: Families were long settled there. As the bartender Stan complains: "Loyalty is supposed to mean something — this is America!"

Something that Stevens wrote may apply: "That's what misery is," one poem opens, "Nothing to have at heart. / It is to have or nothing."

Nottage explores that nothing and that heart in great depth, and, as seen in preview Thursday, this production is up to her presentation of the conflicts that misery gives rise to: Interracial friendships are threatened, labor struggles move "whose side are you on?" distinctions to the fore, families lurch toward disintegration, personal ambition can't gain a foothold.

The cunning progression of scenes, guided by a news crawl and specific dates screened above the
stage, will have audiences eager to plug in information as it emerges about the characters. The frame of Jason and Chris, two young men wrecked by circumstances, interviewed by their parole officer Evan (played with no-nonsense authority tinged with compassion by Josiah McCruiston) is quite effective.

Nottage packs a lot into telling everyone's story and giving their relationships plenty of room to strike sparks, with barely a let-up. In the latter category is an extended monologue for Tracey, the feistiest and most coarsely robust of the factory workers at the play's center, recalling her craftsman grandfather, her pride in her hometown's past and what he did to shape it.  It's a beautiful set-piece, one of many moments to be astonished and grateful for Diane Kondrat's return to the Phoenix schedule.
Jason shows Stan and Chris a photo of the motorcycle he intends to buy.

Others include a brief scene involving a tense reunion between Tracey and her son Jason, after she is out of work and dependent on self-medicating to treat her back pain. Strung out on opioids, Tracey mumbles bitterly, shuffling when she has to move, prematurely aged. At the preview, that characterization seemed as fully formed as if it had to occupy a whole play. Kondrat can turn on a dime in the middle of a scene, too, which happens when Tracey recalls a rollicking episode in Atlantic City with work pal Cynthia back before Cynthia's promotion strained their relationship: Tracey's recollection of the bond leads right into a withering lecture on a friend's obligation to fight; Kondrat's performance lowered the boom on Cynthia and the audience at the same time.

Dressed for office work, Cynthia tries to stay friends with the suspicious Tracey.
To various degrees, demands for changes reflecting drastic shifts in the characters' lives permeate the play. The cast rises to the occasion: Jason's hair-trigger temper has helped turn him from a short-sighted but intense union loyalist into a skinhead punk; Nathan Robbins bridged the divide convincingly. Chris' more clear-eyed ambition sinks into fidgety confusion in Ramon Hutchins' portrayal as the son tries to negotiate the rift between his parents, Cynthia and Brucie. Dena Toler exemplified African-American upward mobility seeking vainly to stay grounded in origins, yet rise above them. Dwuan Watson gave a seductive performance as the elusive head of the family, a charmer prone to wander off-course as the futility of the union's last-ditch efforts hits home.

Angela Plank poignantly played Jessie, a fragile character ready to share in the militancy of her  friends on the factory floor but defeated by nagging loneliness as she sinks with her comrades into the economic maelstrom. In Phil Male's striking unit set, Rob Johansen presides as Stan, the bartender whose severe factory injury has removed him from that milieu while giving him some stature as a peacemaker and in the classic bartender role of sympathetic ear. The outsize extrovert will pay hugely for this, setting up a heart-stopping last scene. (Johansen also choreographed one of the most violent and tightly controlled fights I've ever seen onstage.) Ian Cruz as Oscar, the bar's overlooked and underpaid busboy, emerges as the upholder of values that the play's context inexorably depletes.

Brucie has some explaining to do to Chris, his son.
Humane values struggle under the shadow of Reading's severe economic stress. It's the nemesis faced by all the characters in "Sweat." Although the factory closure is under remote human control, it has the force in this play of fate. The kind of playgoer who shuns drama that plumbs the sorrows of recent events ("Why pay to go to depressing theater when life's real struggles are depressing enough?") should consider that art removes the inevitable distancing effect of fateful bad news. Its shaping power destroys the illusions through which we process the real world. This production ennobles the characters' struggles and their multiple analogies in the lives of real people, many of them still alive and suffering. We can ill afford to be among those "who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears," in another poet's words.

Maybe that's why Wallace Stevens titled the poem whose first lines I quoted above "Poetry Is a Destructive Force."  And it could also be why the poem's governing image is the lion, presented not so much as a predator as the blissful post-hunt absorber and digester of weaker creatures: a symbol of fate.

That's cold comfort for anybody, whether unarmed against either a lion in the wild or an economic system in our midst. But a play or a poem can be the thing that provides a point of rest, even if we are well advised to stay alert. Let the Bard of Reading speak it:

The lion sleeps in the sun.
Its nose is on its paws.
It can kill a man.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]