Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Beef & Boards rings in the New Year with an old comedy about marriage (without wives)

Two veterans of Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre play the title roles in "The Odd Couple" to open the company's 2015 season. Neil Simon's comedy turns 50 next year, and the offstage friendship of Eddie Curry and Jeff Stockberger is already half that age.
Oscar (Jeff Stockberger) and the poker gang endure Felix's (Eddie Curry) cleanliness obsession.

Thus, the joys of familiarity are fully on display in the show, which opened Tuesday night. They bubble up according to the company's time-tested "louder, faster, funnier" formula,  shared with me years ago by Curry in an interview.

In this production, directed by Douglas E. Stark, B&B's executive director, Curry plays Felix Unger, a fastidious worrywart distressed by the recent breakup of his marriage. His friend and fellow B&B old-timer, Jeff Stockberger, portrays Felix's poker-playing buddy Oscar Madison, a loutish, well-paid sportswriter rattling around in spacious bachelor digs on New York's Riverside Drive and struggling offhandedly to meet post-divorce obligations.

Felix's histrionic depression unnerves his friends — besides Oscar, squabbling poker pals Speed, Murray, Roy and Vinnie —  and prompts the sportswriter to invite Felix to move in until he gets his feet on the ground emotionally. The readily apparent character contrast was strong enough in the play's era of origin to inspire a hit TV series that branched off from Simon's plot.

In his classic mode of popularity, Simon mined his gifts as a gag writer to load his relationship conflicts with all the humor they can stand before asserting conventional values at the end: Newlywed woes surrounding the need to adjust personalities in "Barefoot in the Park" and the pains of growing up in a large urban family in "Brighton Beach Memoirs," to cite two eminent examples. The underlying value in "The Odd Couple" is the durability of male friendship across lifestyle boundaries that only seem barbed when those lifestyles are forced to coexist daily.

Another Simon, the acerbic theater critic John Simon, shortchanged the achievement of "The Odd Couple" when he dismissed the Broadway show as "nothing much more than a joke book tossed upon the stage." In fact, the jokes, smoothly tied into situational comedy, lead up to affirmation of the touching bond between two good friends at loggerheads.

Oscar urges skeptical Felix to envision dinner date with English sisters.
The vehicle for this transformation is the odd couple's dinner date with a pair of attractive, dotty English sisters (suitably jolly and eager in Erin Cohenour's and Carrie Fedor's performances) who live in the same building. They're charmed by Felix's vulnerability at just the point when his living arrangement with Oscar becomes untenable. That plot twist undergirds the subtle indication that sharing living quarters, however tumultuously, has benefited both men.

All this is by way of bringing up what works and what doesn't work in the Curry-Stockberger rapport. The security of their two-way interaction is palpable. Heightened commitment by both actors to making these male caricatures seem three-dimensional is evident from the start: Felix is torn up, ashen-faced at the prospect of life without his family; Oscar is blithe and borderline irresponsible as he tries to skate away from the traps of family life. As they act out their grating differences, the performances become sublimely all-out.

But the unrelenting fast pace is detrimental to establishing the simple humanity of the relationship. The playwright bears considerable responsibility for this by frontloading the play with carping, rapidfire dialogue for his excitable poker players — vividly enacted here by Michael Davis, Craig Underwood, Dave Ruark and Darrin Murrell. (The snappy tempo may have occasioned several opening-night line bobbles, the funniest of them being when Oscar invites Felix: "If you've got anything on your chin besides your chest, you better get it off now.")

The rest of the responsibility for the sketchiness of this friendship portrait is the director's, however. I hope it doesn't seem far afield to make my point by evoking something the distinguished poet Richard Wilbur said long ago before reading his poem "Two Voices in a Meadow." The poem is an imagined dialogue between a milkweed and a stone, which students had been instructed, Wilbur noted, to see as representing opposed spiritual and material points of view. The poet offered this correction:  Both voices are spiritual, but the stone is "spiritual in a slob way."

If "spiritual" is too strong a word for Oscar Madison, maybe "sensitive" works better. Like Felix, Oscar is a sensitive human being, but sensitive in a slob way. That nifty blend was missing in Stockberger's performance Tuesday; you had to sort of intuit it.  Bringing it out more would not have made "The Odd Couple" a sappy play or violated the reigning B&B style.

Both Oscar and Felix have grown through their difficult time together. Simon has done more than toss a joke book upon the stage and commanded us to laugh. He also leaves something for the audience to feel, even to think about.  But the lively professionalism of this production doesn't go to that aspect of the play with any real confidence.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Adventures in **** and vinegar: What do you mean? or, Drawing a net around slang, vulgarity, and vogue words

Mainstream English usage is getting looser and coarser, and I may be guilty of elitism just to suggest that NPR is my notion of "mainstream."

But here's the immediate provocation: I am disturbed that "piss(ed) off" is no longer bleeped out of NPR interviews, nor is "ass" as in "pain in the...."  As far as I'm aware, on-air staffers don't go there, but interviewees seem to be free to express themselves that way unbleeped.

In addition to vulgarity creep,  such looseness is disturbing because vulgar slang – and words that are neither vulgar nor slang but come into vogue, like "awesome" — is characterized by vagueness.

You can't tell what is meant by the slapdash application of "awesome," for instance. Overuse (and this includes vulgarisms) leaches away meaning. During my newspaper career, I once handed in a self-evaluation as a required part of the annual performance review. The boss received the submission with "Awesome!" Clearly, there was nothing awesome about what I turned in — and that goes for the entire performance review process, frankly. I think she meant "Thanks."

Similarly, people who refer to someone else as "a pain in the ass" seem to be indicating every kind of behavior from mildly annoying up to the threshold of threatening. On the positive side, the durable slang word "cool" is now so broad an indication of approval that it's often applied to someone or something considered "hot." Quick, get a thermometer!

But back to "pissed off." Its wide spectrum ranges from explicit rage through vexation to annoyance.
And yes, I think there's a useful distinction between being vexed and being annoyed. "Pissed off" is a spicy but expressively bland sauce spread over all those distinctions, however.

Language issues: Nigel and Roy are convivial at the bar, up to a point.
What's worse, the ambiguity can be compounded if one slang source runs up against another. This is especially true with "pissed off" when, as is common in the U.S., the "off" is left off. Let's say Nigel, an Englishman and recent transplant, and Roy, an American, are new friends and urban professionals who have started meeting on Fridays after work at a favorite big-city watering-hole. In Nigel's lexicon, "pissed" means drunk; in Roy's, it means angry, annoyed, irked, etc. Here's what could happen:

(Roy joins Nigel at the bar, heaves a weary sigh.)

Nigel: Rough week at work, eh?

Roy: The worst.  Told my boss today the report he wanted by the end of the week would be late. Boy, I've never seen him so pissed.

Nigel: Well then, you had something on him, didn't you?

Roy: What do you mean?

Nigel: If he was pissed, you know,  it was sort of even-steven. He was as vulnerable as you.

Roy: No, it's a boss's prerogative.

Nigel (skeptical):  To be pissed at work?

Roy: Sure. Happens all the time.

Nigel: I should think that might impair their effectiveness.

Roy: Well, it's not as fashionable as it used to be, I guess. But if it puts the fear of God into  their underlings, a lot of bosses have absolutely no problem with it.

Nigel (shaking his head):  Makes them look a bit ridiculous, it does. Though just about everybody gets pissed from time to time.

Roy: And you can't blame people, the way things are today, can you?

Nigel: I suppose not, but there can be hell to pay in the morning.

Roy: In the morning? If you're not careful, you get it back in your face — right away. No need to wait!

Nigel: You've just got to be careful to get out of the way then. (Chuckling.) It can be messy.

Roy: Messy I can handle. I can give as good as I get, if I'm in the mood. Depending on the situation, of course.

Nigel (cautiously): So many opportunities.  There's always risk involved. Right now, even. Over a friendly chat.

Roy (looks at Nigel with narrowed eyes, then shrugs): Sure, but you have to learn to control it. Bottle it up sometimes.

Nigel (laughing uneasily): Stuff's bottled up to begin with, isn't it? Opening the bottle, there's the problem.

Roy: Uh....right. And trying not to provoke other people. Don' t make them go there.

Nigel:  Right you are. Not being a — what you call it — an enabler. A gentleman, which I try to be, for example, will not lead a woman in that direction.

Roy (nodding): I try to stay out of the way of all that. You can't win. Women — hell hath no fury. You get my meaning.

Nigel: Uh, belligerent when they're pissed, you mean.

Roy (slightly annoyed): Of course. It's just about the same thing, isn't it?

Nigel: Mmm, sometimes. But then there are those who will get morose, or giggly, or sentimental. Can't forget them. Whatever the case, you might just have to guide them back to the loo and hope they feel better.

Roy (looking quizzically at Nigel). The loo.  The loo. Ah yes, that's what you Brits call the bathroom. So that calms them down when they're like that, does it? I hadn't thought of that. (Pause.) Might make them all the more pissed, don't you think?

Nigel: Well, you have to cut off access,  of course.

Roy:  Access to what?  I don't follow.

Nigel: Access to WHAT! What the hell are we talking about?

Roy: Don't raise your voice to me, pal. I'm only asking for a little clarification. You Brits can be so, I don't know, cryptic sometimes.

Nigel: Well sod you, mate! Cryptic we may very well seem to dense Yanks.

Roy: Sod me? Sod me! What a language! And to think you folks invented it. (Trying to defuse the situation, tensely amused). Sod my lawn, I wish someone would. It's in lousy shape, all brown and weedy. The neighbors look over at it from their green, well-manicured yards. I can tell they're pissed.

Nigel (trying to reestablish a friendly tone): That's the pot calling the kettle black, then, isn't it? In that condition, what right do they have to criticize you?

Roy: Duh.  They like green lawns. (Tense silence.) They are in favor of conscientious lawn care. Am I making myself clear?

Nigel (warily): Say, you wouldn't be a little pissed yourself now, would you, my friend?

Roy (through gritted teeth): Not yet, but I could be heading that way.

Nigel: You're feeling a little off-kilter, I'm thinking. Want me to help you over to the loo? Clear your head a little before you go home. That should help.

Roy: And maybe you should take a flying leap.... (Checks himself.) Oh, hell. Sorry, buddy,  if I seem pissed. I should be leaving.

Nigel: No problem. Occasionally a chap simply can't hold it as well as he can at other times.

Roy: Not sure what I'm holding or not holding, Nigel, but let it go. Have a good weekend.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Long before Kim: What if King Herod had been able to hack the Gospel narratives of Jesus' birth?

The infamous hack of Sony Pictures, which the U.S. government has concluded was the clandestine
North Korea's ruler casts a dim view on challenges from any quarter.
work of North Korea, just before Christmas, opens up speculation as to how dictators of past eras might have wished for the technology to interfere with stories hostile to them and their family line. The line of kings called Herod began with the post-Maccabee monarch known as Herod the Great, the ruler at the time of Jesus' birth, and included Herod Antipas, one of his sons, who turned the decision over the adult Jesus' fate to the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate, a figure also afflicted with indecision bordering on irresponsibility.  Obviously, the Herods are not favorably viewed in the New Testament — the first looking both bloodthirsty and foolish in his futile attempt to wipe out any eventual rival for kingship, the second appearing to truckle to his Roman supervisor.  Neither king quite fits the Kim Jong-un model, since they were absolute rulers who served only at the pleasure of their imperial bosses.

Manuscripts are not hackable, of course, but what if the gospels of Matthew and Luke, written in the first century A.D., had been gathered up by royal order and drastically rewritten so as to represent the Nativity from a Herodian point of view?

Here is the sort of text that might have been produced, rendered in a modern translation (Merry Christmas!):

1 The presumptive usurper Jesus was born in Bethlehem, an undistinguished village in Judaea, under the benevolent rule of King Herod, rebuilder of the Temple and the preserver and defender of the Jewish people under the imperial control of glorious Rome.

2  His parents were from Nazareth, and had taken the risk of travel to Bethlehem, despite the woman's condition, in the mistaken belief the journey was officially required for census registration and taxes.

3  Fortunately for them, the long road was smooth, thanks to Roman engineering, among the gifts afforded to the people by the loyalty of Herod the Great to his imperial masters.

4  The trip was unnecessary at any rate, but the couple had been told by some scholar or other that their son's descent from King David would be more unassailable if a Bethlehem birth could be arranged.

5  Oh, the trouble the undeserving will go to to lay claim to a glory that can never be theirs.

6  And so it was done, an affront to the good order of Judaea. But it was at length a manifest failure, as demonstrated by the lamentable career of Jesus of Nazareth.

7  In Bethlehem, a star is said to have moved into place over a stable, of all places, and attracted the attention of some nearby shepherds, prompted by some sort of vision.

8  These normally loyal subjects had been misled by what they recalled as angelic authority, and are not to be blamed for their credulousness.

Who led gullible shepherds to this scene of insurrection?
9  "Let's go into Bethlehem," they said to one another. "For this keeping watch over our flocks by night is exceedingly tedious."

10  "What's happening in Bethlehem?" some of the others wondered doubtfully. "Why go there anyway? It's no more interesting a place than here."

11 "There's supposed to be a great king for us newly born there, an angel told me. Great things are promised on his behalf — Messiah-level stuff.

12  "I've got directions and everything: He's lying in a manger in a stable behind the inn."

13  "Do tell! A likely birthplace for a king!" said one of their number, known for his skepticism.

14  "Besides, we've already got a king," another shepherd pointed out, "and all told he seems a pretty decent fellow."

15  The others were quick to agree. "What trouble! We Jews are always looking for the Next Big Thing," complained a wise shepherd far along in years. "It's an old, old story. It's as tiresome as taking care of sheep. Let's stay put."

16  But the seekers after novelty held sway, so the shepherds left their sheep and acted like sheep themselves, making haste into Bethlehem.

17  When they got there, they discovered three rich astrologers who had come from a long way off, having stopped with their entourage at the stable behind the overcrowded inn.

18  A miraculously bright star, now overhead, had guided them to this very spot, they said. Word of their search had reached the ears of King Herod, and he was reputed to be wanting to pay homage. Yes, even he. Worship seemed to be the order of the day, so the shepherds knelt, too.

19  Wealthy, exotic foreigners of dubious authority can be depended upon to gain the trust of the people from time to time, and it was no different here. The shepherds were impressed, good Jews forgetting that only the heathen pay attention to the meaning of the stars and how they move.

20  It's a source of idol worship, and draws the attention of pious people away from their duties to their rulers and to their religion. The danger of idolatry is extensively covered in the Scriptures, to which the faithful are urged to repair after absorbing the lessons of this true account of Jesus' birth and infancy.

21  This great offense against the authority of Herod the Great caused him to fear for himself as well as for the likely response of his benevolent Roman overlords to a potential power shift in the kingdom. So when he had summoned the astrologers, he thanked them for their efforts.

22   "Tell me more," he implored them. "This birth sounds like a real game-changer, and I'd love to be in on the celebration."

23  The foreigners had every reason to suppose that a ruler duty-bound to suppress all rivals would somehow make an exception for the infant Jesus. Their star-worship had deluded them, and they may have had designs against the security of the state as well. In any event, they vanished after visiting the stable and could not be traced, a certain indication that their motives were evil.

24  Knowing the ancient prophecy of Bethlehem's greatness, Herod had no recourse. Part of paying the cost to be the boss is making difficult decisions. Fortunately, Bethlehem is a small place.

Measures to secure the state must sometimes be drastic.
25   So when the King issued orders to slaughter all male children under two years of age, he was playing it safe, while limiting the damage to one tiny, unlucky community.

26  "We had to destroy that village in order to save...all of us," he told his people. "If you've seen one Messiah pretender, you've seen them all.

27 "Who wants to risk breaking the Covenant — and, even worse, offending the Romans — by letting every little upstart flourish and cause no end of trouble?

28   "In time, the grieving mothers of Bethlehem will surely understand, secure in the knowledge that no one will ever hear of this so-called King of the Jews again, and everyone will be spared the devastation he is certain to have caused. Now, as you were, everybody."

29  So the stable was put back in order and the innkeeper closed it to human guests from that time forth.

30  The shepherds, grumbling but chastened, went back to their sheep-covered hillsides and told each other stories, as shepherds have forever done in their pastoral idleness.

31  The three deceitful foreigners probably went to their graves wondering what benefit puzzling over the heavens had ever brought them.

32  Herod the Great died before he could realize that Jesus had absconded with his parents to safety in Egypt, no doubt forewarned by enemies of the state. The family returned to Galilee only after the king's deplorable death, and Jesus came to maturity in Nazareth as an indifferent carpenter but a disturbingly ambitious preacher and healer.

33  The shrewd Herod's  illustrious royal son, Herod Antipas, dealt with the result handily just over three decades later. It's all recorded later in this narrative, demonstrating, as all true accounts do, the futility of proclaiming an end to things as they are.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Far away from his usual genres, the blogger sings the blues about a household problem and his quest to solve it

Eyes on the prize: Don't bother about style.
 Mousetrap Blues

 (The most memorable blues songs are seamless blends of autobiography and art. About half of what follows really happened, half is made up. You can decide which is which, and sing it to any blues tune that seems to fit.)

When you go out shopping, better stick to the task at hand
When you go out shopping, better stick to the task at hand
      Don't set a person's talk right, as long as you understand.

Went to the hardware store, looking to win a fight
Went to the hardware store, looking to win a fight
      To rid our old house of the mice that come at night.
Chose my mousetrap wisely, was walking down the aisle to pay
Chose my mousetrap wisely, was walking down the aisle to pay
      When a man who worked there said in a friendly way:

“That trap works good, I’ve been using them myself” –
“That trap works good, I’ve been using them myself” – 
    He said that I’d picked up the best one on the shelf.

His free endorsement sure did make me glad
His free endorsement sure did make me glad
     But the way he said it struck me as a little sad.

“This trap works well, I’m sure you meant to say”
“This trap works well, I’m sure you meant to say”
      Then and there, I watched his smile fade away.

His lip curled slightly, and he fixed me with his eye:
His lip curled slightly, and he fixed me with his eye:
      “We got another one in back I’d like for you to try:

“Same brand, but bigger, and tough: I’m tellin’ you true
 “Same brand, but bigger, and tough: I’m tellin’ you true —
       It’s a trap for Grammar Nazis, oughta work REAL GOOD for you.”

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Interstate connections: Local jazz prof links with Florida trio for an evening at the Jazz Kitchen

Tracking well: Zach Bartholomew, Miles Bozeman, and Brandon Robertson played the Jazz Kitchen.
It was a short second set during which to gauge the fresh rapport between saxophonist Matt Pivec, director of jazz studies at Butler University, and the Zach Bartholomew Trio from Tallahassee, Florida. But I had a good feeling about the contributions of each party to this get-together Monday night at the Jazz Kitchen.

Maybe a half-dozen numbers (with Pivec sitting out the trio's traversal of Kenny Barron's "Voyage") are sufficient when you're savoring the kind of musical empathy that's an indelible part of jazz tradition. Either it happens or you get something akin to the parallel play of toddlers.

Pivec told me he'd met Zach Bartholomew, Brandon Robertson, and Miles Bozeman for the first time that afternoon. A former Pivec student had contacted him to ask for help getting ZBT (as it likes to be known) an Indianapolis gig to fill out the trio's short Midwestern tour.

Matt Pivec
And so it came to be. One could well argue that Sam Rivers' thoughtful "Beatrice" didn't quite earn its place as the evening's finale. But Pivec thought there would be another set, it turned out, so the impromptu quartet closed things out about a quarter-hour early.

The meeting of minds occurred early, fortunately, around the evergreen "There Will Never Be Another You." Launched by Robertson's rubato bass solo and initial statement of the melody, the performance evolved as  pianist Bartholomew and Pivec found common ground. The tune permits lots of motivic fragmentation without disintegrating, and that's what pianist and saxophonist explored, each in his own way.

Pivec was also on alto sax for "Beatrice," which approached finale suitability with solos by drummer Bozeman at beginning and end. Contrast was provided by the tom-tom emphasis for his first turn in the spotlight, then a snare-centric coda to wrap things up. Bozeman likes to play with the components of the kit close in; his ability to vary intensity and timbre with no wasted motion would be good for young drummers to study.

What came off best were the foursome's interpretations of Wayne Shorter's "Footprints" and Thelonious Monk's "I Mean You." In both instances, I admired the way Bozeman's drumming heated up behind Bartholomew's adventuresome solos. The ensemble was unified and powerful — and polished enough without ever coming close to being staid. Robertson took a searching solo in the Monk standard, infused with energy, though on the verge of sounding cluttered.

The most consistent change of pace, Hoagy Carmichael's sublime "Skylark," featured splendors as well as a problem. Bartholomew brought loads of insight into his solo, adding a blend of tension and lyricism with a repeated-note passage that functioned as a tribute to the title's avian songster. And Bozeman's use of mallets behind Pivec's solo was a zesty choice.

The problem? I sensed the band didn't know the bridge thoroughly: The harmonic shift toward the end — where Johnny Mercer's lyric goes "sad as a gypsy serenading the moon" — was never properly stated. Well, elision and deconstruction are part of jazz, too; I just regretted it had to happen to such a great song.

Since last night and thanks to the pianist's generosity, I've listened with pleasure to ZBT's "Out of This Town," a CD of mostly originals recorded in 2012. In this program, the five-year-old band lives up to the evidence of true partnership I heard at the Jazz Kitchen. It's an imaginative, tight-knit unit around the nine tunes, most of them Bartholomew's. These young men know how to relax, too, so the listener always feels invited to eavesdrop on a fascinating three-way conversation.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Beyond observation: Poetry has to confront the unsayable and tell it, not just fluff our sensory pillows

Definitions of the nature and function of poetry sometimes seem to weigh as heavy as the poems themselves. No one needs another, but perhaps I can be excused for bringing back an old one that's germane to the present moment.

E.A. Robinson told Joyce Kilmer (of all people!) what poetry is.
Something Edwin Arlington Robinson once said prophetically addresses the overabundance of contemporary poems that regard bare statement, viewpoint, and observation as sufficient. We hear this kind of verse in Garrison Keillor's "Writer's Almanac," and such poems are the first choice for speakers in nonliturgical religious services and other self-consciously solemn occasions. If the poem draws attention to our duty to perceive more sensitively, and is winsome about it, it goes to the head of the class. It is shared on Facebook, and goes over well at poetry readings and in some anthologies.

These days, poetry that relies only on imagery, and otherwise tells us just what we want to hear, is practically inert. It's mere charity to detect fresh energy in words that decline to struggle with the difficulty of apprehending what lies beyond words. Where in all this verse is that which really stirs the senses and the mind? Where do you find poems that act as acutely as they claim to see, rather than poems that mean only what they say and no more?

Here's how the most significant modern New England poet before Robert Frost was quoted in a New York Times interview 98 years ago. "Poetry is a language that tells us, through a more or less emotional reaction, something that cannot be said," Robinson told his young poet-interviewer. "All real poetry, great or small, does this."

Paradoxical, isn't it? We necessarily use words for what we have to say, so how can poetry, which relies on words (what else?), tell us the unsayable?  Robinson went on, according to the interview excerpt Mark Van Doren uses in his 1927 book on the poet: "And it seems to me that poetry has two characteristics. One is that it is, after all, undefinable. The other is that it is eventually unmistakable."

Did Robinson muddy the waters, or is muddy water what inevitably confronts the genuine poet as he sets to work? Our commonplace poets today, even if they throw up a puzzle or two in their imagery, seem to be obsessed with what they want to say and comfortable in their powers of observation. By isolating what "cannot be said" as a touchstone for poetry, Robinson was declaring that you can't groom your thoughts and observations into carefully chosen words arranged down the page with a ragged right-hand margin, then conclude you've committed poetry of value.

This is true whether you practice free verse or the more or less formal kind. Robinson's formula for poetry was lost on his interviewer, for instance, a versifier by the name of Joyce Kilmer, author of the once popular "Trees." Kilmer hardly bothered approaching the boundary of what cannot be said.  He was so intent on communicating a humble, worshipful attitude toward trees that he ended his most famous poem like this: "Poems are made by fools like me, / But only God can make a tree." Except for its verse-marking rhyme and meter, this doesn't get close to poetry as Robinson defined it. It's a sentiment that could have been uttered in prose by a fatuous Arbor Day speaker after setting down his shovel or watering-can.

Williams' poetry has ideas as well as things.
I'm moved to figuratively grab poets by the scruff of the neck and guide their meditation toward Robinson's wise words by a segment on last weekend's "The Art of  the Matter" (WFYI-FM) about local poets' involvement in "The Healing Project" at Eskenazi Health, Indianapolis' visionary new hospital. One of the two poets in conversation with Travis Di Nicola read a long poem inspired by William Carlos Williams' "The Red Wheelbarrow,"  a classic of American modernism.

The young poet (I'm only certain of his first name: Adam) takes a narrow view of  "The Red Wheelbarrow" as an indication of Dr. Williams' steady, penetrating perspective on the material world around him. True, Williams is responsible for the formula "no ideas but in things" (which our Eskenazi poet quotes) and was the unwitting progenitor of boatloads of inert, flat, thing-stuffed poetry. But Williams, a thoughtful poet, did not  advise us: "No ideas are necessary; just focus on things."

And "The Red Wheelbarrow" does indeed confront the unsayable. The things it presents are bathed in an emotional reaction and a complete range of thought. The poem meets Robinson's exacting criteria.

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

Adam the poet so badly needs to present this scene as merely observed and lacking any inherent autonomy that he ignores the crucial "so much depends" and interprets the wheelbarrow's red color as connoting rust and thus a condition of decayed usefulness. Rainwater on a rusty, decrepit wheelbarrow is unlikely to have a glazed look, and indeed it's clear that the wheelbarrow is only temporarily idle. At any rate, why should so much depend on it in a chicken yard? Why would Williams open this very short poem with such an emphasis?

Do I have to spell this s--- out for you? Very well.

Here's a relevant paragraph I just pulled off the internet: "Chicken manure introduces more nutrients into the soil than other types, such as steer manure. While this fertilizer might not beat chemical fertilizers in the nitrogen-phosphorous-potassium rating, it gives your soil something those fertilizers don't: structure. It serves as a soil amendment as well as plant food, improving drainage in dense soils and water-retention abilities in loamy soils."

A wheelbarrow might be of considerable utility in moving chicken manure to where it's needed, don't you think? So much depends on it, you might say, such as a thriving garden, such as our stewardship of nature and its bounty.

Williams' delicate arrangement of this scene is more than something he saw, whether in reality or in his mind's eye. The poem is a whole view of life — and its interdependence — in miniature. Williams was no proto-Instagram poet, taking verbal snapshots and displaying them in poetic form so people could admire the thrifty clarity of his vision. He was mounting an assault on what could not be said — at least, what could otherwise not be said so compactly and memorably and economically. The poem is active, and engages us because there is thought and emotion behind it. It performs — it doesn't just take in a scene and report it in short, jagged lines.

A couple of other Williams poems could be adduced in support of this. "This Is Just to Say" is a love poem revolving around appetite and a shared life, though its "sayable" content is an apology for eating plums the poet's wife was "probably saving for breakfast." And, speaking of plums, "To a Poor Old Woman" is about more than the sight of an impoverished stranger enjoying some fruit, cast in words because the poet is pleased with himself as an observer. Let's look at its most daring stanza:

They taste good to her
They taste good
to her. They taste
good to her

If we focus only on what Williams is observing, the threefold repetition makes little sense. But if we look at the shifting stress in the sentence lent by the line breaks, we know we are encountering poetry according to Robinson's standard. We pick up the unmistakable tone of empathy from a well-fed person toward someone much less certain of dependable sustenance. The poet is not just looking at the poor woman; he's also identifying with her. That the link is a shared love of plums is not trivial.

A more recent poet supports Robinson, though his use of "say" may create a little confusion. A.R. Ammons obviously means "don't have a damn thing to say" in the colloquial sense of lacking something of significance to impart verbally. I believe Ammons, a far different kind of poet from Robinson, is here also proclaiming poetry's responsibility to "tell what cannot be said."

"I'm sick and tired of reading poets who have beautiful images that don't have a damn thing to say," Ammons told the Michigan Quarterly Review in 1989. "I want somebody who can think and tell me something."

Indeed, why go to poetry for things we already know, or for sentiments and images that represent little more than a slight heightening of our best moments of attention? We should want poetry that is like the buck bursting out of the lake in Robert Frost's "The Most of It." As the poem opens, Frost's solitary lakeside walker is frustrated that the natural world gives back to him only the echo of his own voice: "He would cry out on life, that what it wants / Is not its own love back in copy speech / But counter-love, original response."

The poem doesn't know what to make of "the embodiment that crashed / In the cliff's talus on the other  side." At the end of several magnificent lines of startled description, the last four words are "and that was all." An embodiment is not a revelation, after all — certainly not one that can be elucidated in tones of prosy reassurance. But it's the kind of communication we should expect from genuine poetry.

Mark Strand, who died recently at 80, approached the unsayable.
The communication needs to be only remotely concrete. In evidence, I want to end with a poem by the late Mark Strand. "Keeping Things Whole" is no masterpiece, but it's an honest piece of work on behalf of good poetry's pursuit of the unsayable.  The everyday saturates the poem, but the poem is not cluttered with everyday stuff. As poetry, it is undefinable — and unmistakable. Poems apprehending "counter-love, original response" are what we need. This is one of them.

In a field
I am the absence
of field.
This is
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.

When I walk
I part the air
and always
the air moves in
to fill the spaces where my body's been.

We all have reasons
for moving.
I move
to keep things whole.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Lincoln Trio presents a Spanish composer's personal exploration in chamber music of his Andalusian heritage

A significant number of 20th-century American composers came into their own through study in Paris, chiefly with Nadia Boulanger. Earlier in the 1900s, a composer from a geographically closer but still culturally distant milieu acquired his own voice in the French capital.

Like the Americans — including Virgil Thomson, Elliott Carter, and Aaron Copland — Joaquin Turina benefited during his foreign sojourn (1905-1914) from exposure to his Spanish
The Lincoln Trio probes the chamber music of Joaquin Turina.
countrymen. In Turina's case,  these were the eminent creative figures of Manuel de Falla and Isaac Albeniz.

What they urged upon him, according to Andrea Lamoreaux's program notes for a new Cedille Records CD set by the Lincoln Trio and guests, was cultivation of his homegrown musical traditions, bringing his sophisticated education to bear upon it.

Returning to Madrid with the onset of World War I, Turina made his mark as a composer and conductor. The new recording presents on two discs his works for piano and strings.

You can hear Turina's mainstream romantic roots in his Quintet in G minor, op. 1. There is a knack for establishing atmosphere in the muted opening of the first movement; his inclination toward an impressionism he would learn to call his own is immediately apparent. But the work becomes full-throatedly 19th-century in expression — chromatic, layered and quasi-orchestral; influences of both Franck and Wagner are discernible. (Violinist Jasmine Lin and violist Ayane Kozasa are neatly folded into the host ensemble of Desiree Ruhstrat, violin; David Cunliffe, cello; and Mara Aznavoorian, piano.)

The work follows the Piano Quartet in A minor, op. 67, on Disc Two. Turina's mature gift for smoothly presenting a variety of texture and color shows up here. There are declamatory passages for violin and cello that grab the attention and foreshadow the internal drama to come. Thematically, we get lilting, dancing melodies and what seem to be folkloric elements. These are well displayed in the brisk, three-minute "Vivo" second movement. The performance is dazzling.

The highlights on Disc One are two piano trios with opus numbers, following a Piano Trio in F major that's both gripping and academic. In Opp. 35 and 76, Turina is at his best presenting dialogue opportunities for the three instruments; the conversation is carried out zestfully by the Lincoln Trio.  Formal novelties complement the idiosyncratic handling of melody and harmony: in Op. 35 in D major, the first-movement "Prelude and Fugue" moves from the slow, highly chromatic introduction to a fugue of unusually relaxed character. The subsequent two movements — a thoughtful theme-and-variations and a passionate sonata— bring out the Lincoln Trio's most expressive playing.

Each disc ends with a refined character piece. "Circulo," op. 91, memorializes three times of day — from dawn through noon to twilight. This eloquent trio offers fruitful comparisons to Disc Two's sextet,"Escena Andaluza," in two movements that show how well Turina distilled his take on impressionism. The dark instrumentation, keyed to a solo viola accompanied by piano and string quartet, makes of "Crepuscule du soir" and "A la fenetre" something peculiarly haunting.  Kozasa is the enthralling solo violist; other guests on hand are violinist Aurelien Fort Pederzoli and violist Doyle Armbrust.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Toad's broken clock doesn't keep 'A Year With Frog and Toad' from being time well spent

Jostling for space amidst the wealth of local holiday entertainment options, Actors Theatre of Indiana has made a tradition of "A Year With Frog and Toad." On Friday night at the Center for the Performing Arts' Studio Theater, the company opened its 2014 production of Robert and Willie Reale's musical adaptation of Arnold Lobel's beloved "Frog and Toad" books.

A fixture on ATI's schedule — this is the company's seventh annual presentation of the show — "A Year With Frog and Toad"  runs blithely around the seasonal cycle in the fanciful pond-and-woodland setting of Lobel's whimsical series. The affectionate, uproarious tone of the original books is preserved in both the Reales' Broadway show and this peppy, well-designed production.

Visually, from the inspired costumes  on through the homey ambiance embodied in Bernie Killian's scenic and technical design, "A Year With Frog and Toad" makes every twist and turn of this amphibian friendship a joy to behold. Jonathan Parke's sound design, whose default setting is a blend of evocative critter noises, also encompasses a cornucopia of special effects, none more magnificent than those accompanying Frog's scary story.

Judy Fitzgerald's direction is vivid and calculated to maximize the fun, and the spirited tone of Brent E. Marty's musical direction serves the action and the clever songs well, with a small offstage band providing buoyant accompaniments.

Warts up: Toad bestirs himself to greet spring.
Don Farrell painted the full spectrum of Toad's character with deft brushstrokes of voice and gesture.
The fretful, dense, self-pitying, blubbery moods to which Toad is subject were effectively balanced against his fundamental joie de vivre and sporadic moments of self-confidence and bravado ("Toad to the Rescue").  "I was in absolute peril!" Toad roars reproachfully at Frog after one of their adventures, and in Farrell's portrayal you know the warty hero both means it and rather enjoys saying it.

The more sensible Frog, fully at home in his smooth green skin, was winningly played by Bradley Reynolds. Without smugness, and projecting genuine tenderness toward his problematic friend, Frog as portrayed by Reynolds adeptly fleshed out a delightful tribute to the value of bonding over time and through trials.

After reconnecting post-hibernation with the arrival of spring, Frog and Toad test their bond and simply enjoy each other's company in the midst of an amiable animal kingdom.  This is far from nature red in tooth and claw. Turtle, Mouse and Lizard tease the awkward Toad both in and out of the water. An Andrews-Sisters-like trio of Birds (played by the same versatile actors)  is blithely supercilious.

Frog (Bradley Reynolds) and Toad (Don Farrell) bond over cookies.
But nothing seriously threatens the friendship except a misunderstanding or two. The friends occupy common ground, despite Frog's superior swimming ability. When Toad bakes cookies with songful enthusiasm to end the first act, Frog joins him in blissful overindulgence. Most of the two friends' foes are figments of Toad's hopping imagination. The songs give three-dimensional zest to the friendship, but "A Year With Frog and Toad"'s family audiences are not destined to be burdened by anything weighty.

Tim Hunt, Kelly Krauter, and Kyra Jeanne Kenyon portray the amphibians' neighbors.
Kelly Krauter, Kyra Jeanne Kenyon, and Tim Hunt deserve plaudits for full-throated and -bodied commitment to the show's supporting menagerie.  In addition, Hunt gets a few well-paced solo turns as Snail, whom Frog charges with delivering a letter to Toad that arrives grotesquely tardy — but, as often turns out in cherished children's stories, at just the right time.

And this is just the right time to pay an initial or repeat visit to ATI's "A Year With Frog and Toad." It's not Handel's "Messiah," it's not "The Nutcracker," and it most definitely is not that didactic Victorian favorite, "A Christmas Carol."  But it deserves to leap regularly into the seasonal affections of local audiences.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

ISO's 'Yuletide Celebration' takes in some well-designed moments for Time for Three

A number of years have elapsed since I last saw "Yuletide Celebration," though its origin coincided with mine as the Indianapolis Star's arts reporter.

Angela Brown knows how to blend glamour and down-to-earth warmth.
Unlike me, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's holiday variety show seems to have gotten more energetic, stylish and refined with age, judging from Saturday night's performance of the 29th annual production in Hilbert Circle Theatre.

Angela Brown, the effervescent operatic soprano who calls Indianapolis home, is reunited as host with Broadway baritone Ben Crawford. The couple revives its 2012 partnership. They engagingly manage the patter (with Brown owing more than a little to the style of the sainted Pearl Bailey), and a few apt remarks are contributed from the podium by pops maestro Jack Everly. Of course, Brown and Crawford get plenty of exposure in vocal solos and duets as well. A special feature of the 2014 show is the magnetism and panache of Time for Three, the Philadelphia-born string trio now in its sixth season as the ISO's ensemble in residence.

The Brown-Crawford "classical" vocal showcase — a medley of "Gesu Bambino," "Panis Angelicus," and "Cantique de Noel" (O Holy Night) — was the least satisfying of the show's medleys and mash-ups, despite Everly's attractive orchestration.  The two singers came off better in solos, such as Brown's in "Rise Up, Shepherd" and Crawford's "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm."

The ISO's pops side is more at the forefront in "Yuletide Celebration"  than its classical chops. The adroit company of singers and dancers supports the stars in the matter of refinement. If memory serves, even the time-tested first-act finale — an abundance of Santa Claus figures tap-dancing to "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" — has changed into something more suave and intricate than ever.

There is certainly no surer hand to have at the helm of this kind of entertainment than Everly. He also  arranged a clever production around "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," with ISO  principal tuba player Anthony Kniffen coming down front to play the melody while Dr. Seuss' Grinch mugged menacingly from one of the stage set's lofty balconies. On the other side of intermission, Everly presides over the premiere performances of his arrangement of songs from the movie "Frozen," culminating in a powerful men's chorus. The suite was neatly tied together, with a particularly mesmerizing episode in which gymnastic aerialist Kristen Noonan also sang, followed by Time for Three's accompanying her limber display in and around an airborne hoop.

You never know what Tf3 will do next.
Time for Three has once again extended its range with this show. The lads had some light-hearted dialogue, they sang a little bit like any good boy band, and violinist Nick Kendall even had a few seconds of tap-dancing, though if you blinked you missed it.

Their forte of effusive, close-order string-ensemble drill was amply on display, naturally. It's given a "bluegrazzy" feeling by their longtime colleague Steve Hackman in his arrangements of "Here We Come A-Wassailing" and in a clever, extended medley of "Let It Snow" interspersed with excerpts from Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker," supported by violinist Zach De Pue's ISO colleagues. Bassist Ranaan Meyer also appears without his trio colleagues in the midst of an effervescent medley of popular seasonal hits titled "Yuletide Jukebox."

Costume designer Clare Henkel's resourcefulness and intuitive pizazz added considerably to the production's visual richness. Especially notable were her multiple designs for Brown and the wealth of glitz poured into a number from "Elf: The Musical" led by Crawford at his most charming. The stage set matched the manner in which the performers were decked out, and Jennifer Ladner's choreography made the most of the large cast's aptitude for snappy, coordinated movement.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Cliche-free concert of Christmas-related music makes up Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra program at the Palladium

The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in full cry.
It's hard to escape the most hackneyed music of the season these days, usually done in predictable ways. That's the kind of comfort food many people expect, but Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra offered something more bracing and satisfying Friday night at the Palladium. It's hard to put up with egg nog unless it's been suitably spiked, after all.

With Marsalis as featured trumpet soloist and master of ceremonies, the most eminent American big band now working presented a program neatly divided into six numbers in each of two sets. A notable standout among those dozen performances was guest vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant.

Salvant personalized "What Child Is This?," restoring a sense of wonder to the text on the age-old melody "Greensleeves." The arrangement opened with a chordal onslaught by the J@LC's stellar sax section, then quickly settled into something more intimate and worshipful once the vocal started.

Her singing was witty and illuminating in more obscure pieces as well. Among them was Louis Armstrong's "'Zat You, Santa Claus?," with its novelty-number door knocking and the wary response to it of the singer, who hopes for a present that can be slipped under the door by the Right Jolly Old Elf.

Salvant displayed her scat-singing ability in "It's Easy to Blame the Weather."  Her affinity for this seasoned technique seemed more an extension of her loose textual phrasing — as adaptable, deep-delving and surprising as Sarah Vaughan's — than a set of tricks drawn out of a handy vocal bag.

In being all decked out in a splendid arrangement, that little-known song was typical of what the 15-member band played throughout. Alto saxophonist Sherman Irby's arrangement featured a poised, well-built trombone solo by Vincent Gardner.

Also striking was the exotic setting put behind "We Three Kings of Orient Are" by arranger-saxophonist Ted Nash. The arrangement comprised an arresting contrast between the main section and the "Star of wonder" bridge. The band had served notice that its program would be cliche-free by the glinting, fresh energy it gave to "Jingle Bells" to open the show — featuring a lengthy, adroit solo by Marsalis.

Reminders of other music stayed subtle in arrangements that were sophisticated but never glibly parodistic. The opening of "I'll Be Home for Christmas," a hit during the Second World War, when the conflict split apart so many families, obliquely recalled Aaron Copland's contemporary "Fanfare for the Common Man." Salvant gave the song an aching quality without an ounce of affectation. The American common man, serving the cause of freedom under duress on two fronts, could promise to be home for Christmas "only in [his] dreams."

All the soloing was pungent and fully focused, except for a James Chirillo guitar outing in "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm" that faltered before he yielded the spotlight. The fleet, soulful piano playing of Dan Nimmer was put on extended display in a trio version of "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," as was the zesty upright bass of Carlos Henriquez. Trumpeter Ryan Kisor and baritone saxophonist Paul Nedzela — withheld from being singled out until the last piece, "Good Morning Blues" — made up for lost time with their muscle-flexing moments in the sun.

Trumpeter Marcus Printup contributed the perfect rouser to end the concert's first half: an arrangement of "Go Tell It on the Mountain" that promised righteous testifying right from the trombone section's statement of the melody. The high-spirited performance included a friendly tenor-sax duel between Victor Goines and Walter Blanding and a rocking dialogue between percussionist Ali Jackson on tambourine and trombone soloist Chris Crenshaw.

And the program's most overplayed, overperformed seasonal association — with Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" — also stayed free of "been there, heard that" status as Marsalis and the band interpreted it without a vocal. Muted trumpets, a fine muted solo from Crenshaw and a heart-stopping full-band diminuendo at the end signaled  the J@LC Orchestra's appeal to both the appetite for seasonal comfort food and the restless, hopeful search for novelty that tends to characterize the turning of the year for all of us.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Dance Kaleidoscope's holiday show draws on high points of popular entertainment as interpreted by David Hochoy and guest choreographers

"Broadway Meets Motown" is a title that suggests a contest of some kind, possibly a friendly one. Taking it in that spirit, I would have to judge Broadway the winner in Dance Kaleidoscope's current production.

As seen in a preview Thursday evening on Indiana Repertory Theatre's Upperstage, DK's two-part show recalls two popular pieces of the recent past. "There's No Business Like Show Business" and "Super Soul: Motown and More."
The anatomy of "Super Soul" was different, but its heart was in the right place.

In what way does the current program's "Best of  Super Soul" come up short?  Mainly in that it has the feeling of a patchwork quilt of tributes to the landmark Detroit record label and other hits by black performers in the 1970s, before popular music was subject to micromanaged marketing.

My recollection of the full show from January 2012 brings forward a production with more of an arc. It had a laudable unity, especially considering that "Super Soul: Motown and More" was the work of DK artistic director David Hochoy and two guest choreographers, Nicholas Owens and Cynthia Pratt.

Whether the current show is really "the best" of "Super Soul" is a question not worth engaging. What's important is that all of "Super Soul" seems the genuine article to me, and worth a full revival. Anthologies are inevitably unsatisfying when the selection process seems to segment something that originally felt unified and whole. (A side issue, but also disappointing, concerns the Upperstage's sound system, over which the music sounded unbalanced, with excessive stereo separation.)

At any rate, of this program's excerpts, only "Say a Little Prayer" seemed self-conscious and perhaps too studied Thursday night. Everything else came off with the pizazz and freshness I remember from nearly three years ago. The sexy comedy of "You've Really Got a Hold on Me" was well-placed amid songs of innocent exuberance,  plus the dark moments of instability represented by "Trouble Man" and "Papa Was a Rolling Stone."

The ensemble was in fine form for the two Michael Jackson numbers that ended the show, "P.Y.T." and "A.B.C."  Representing the show's lyrical side, the inspired serial duets that make up "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" were sweet and elegant Thursday night, thanks to couples Jillian Godwin and Zach Young, Mariel Greenlee and Brandon Comer, and Caitlin Negron and Timothy June.

Thank goodness for "There's No Business Like Show Business," the first half of "Broadway Meets Motown." Hands down, this is a winner, brought back from October 2010.

I hardly know where to start, so I'll start with something small: No musical detail escapes David Hochoy's attention. The "fills" between phrases of "Drive a Person Crazy," whimsical enough in the music, are not ignored in the choreography. The female quartet — Emily Dyson, Aleksa Lukasiewicz, Caitlin Negron, and Missy Trulock — seemed inspired, and no wonder: The drollery rules on both the macro and the micro level.

Other highlights: a sublime duet to "Some Enchanted Evening" carried off with a great feeling for the long line by Negron and  June; Comer and Greenlee's sensitive filling out of the flawed interaction of the couple portrayed in Stephen Sondheim's "Send In the Clowns";  the company's spirited comic timing in "The Lonely Goatherd" from "The Sound of Music."

One of the rewards of art is to revisit a piece you remember fondly and being doubly rewarded, because the work is not only fully brought back but also seems to offer something so fresh it's as if you were making a first-time encounter. That's how I felt about Greenlee's searing solo to "Losing My Mind," displaying her as a technically pure dancer as well as an adept tragedienne.

And of course, there's the memorable dynamism and intensity — keyed to the Sondheim hero's growing self-awareness — of the final ensemble, "Being Alive."  The setting underlines Hochoy's dependable gift for achieving emotional parallelism in dance with a piece of music. This was shown as well in a more abstract piece, Bernstein's "Candide Overture," a curtain-raiser that kept something in reserve to make the music's whirlwind coda a full partner to a high-energy dance interpretation that never ran out of ideas, executed at breakneck speed.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Emmet Cohen breaks up his busy week interacting with students for solo performance at Eskenazi Health

Emmet Cohen of Miami made a strong impression as the youngest finalist four years ago in the Jazz Fellowship Awards competition of the American Pianists Association.

Performing Tuesday afternoon at Eskenazi Health as part of the Marianne Tobias Music Program, Cohen showed that his return as a finalist this year is more than adequate confirmation of the promise he showed in 2010.
Emmet Cohen brings solo virtuosity to Eskenazi Health.

The format of the APA's participation is solo piano in the lobby of the new hospital building, and Cohen is the third of the five jazz finalists to present an hourlong unaccompanied program there. (That comes in the midst of a week of residency at a local high school; Cohen is at Lawrence Central this week.)

The piano (a Tobias gift) is a marvelously responsive instrument, though rather too bright up high. Cohen is a gifted improviser as well as a young master of piano textures and articulation at all dynamic levels.

He tried out different approaches to a tune, such as the soft, clearly focused repeated notes that set up what becomes a massive interpretation of Irving Berlin's "How Deep Is the Ocean." He backed off from grandiloquence just in time, thanks to a segue into "Just in Time," which incorporated a creditable "stride" chorus before settling into the final measures.

He's a bubbly fountain of ideas, launching into "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing" from an unexpected suggestion of a Bach two-part invention at the start of his program.  He closed it indulging in his virtuoso capacity, using "In the Still of the Night" to set up his interpretation of another Cole Porter evergreen, "I Concentrate on You." His manner here could be called flowery, until it began to suggest runaway verdure —  a jungle of piano sonority including clanging treble tremolos. This bravura episode was cannily moderated before the end. Cohen showed himself thereby to be a shrewd showman, putting the "wow" factor foremost as his farewell gesture.

He altered his focus on the Great American Songbook to offer a whimsical, angular take on two Thelonious Monk tunes, "Trinkle Tinkle" and "Four in One." I admired his phrasing, with its deft spacing and clever distribution of the former composition's Woody Woodpecker motif.

In Gershwin's "Someone to Watch Over Me," Cohen lingered over the verse, using it to introduce the familiar chorus taken at a medium-swing tempo, where the tune could sound tender and pleading without getting sappy. Cohen's affection for classic popular songs was particularly evident in his performance of Harry Warren's "I Wish I Knew," where lyricism rode high over romantic filigree.

The young man has a vast expressive range and seems to be able to put to use every technique remotely suitable to jazz pianism. I'd like to hear him put aside some of the virtuosity someday to tell me something new about the blues, however. I have a feeling he could do that well, too.

Monday, December 1, 2014

On, Flasher! On, Dasher! On, Donner and Blitzen!: 'A Very Phoenix Xmas' turns 9

"Flashing Through the Snow" is a title that promises more naughtiness than this version of Phoenix Theatre's annual Christmas pastiche delivers, but that's OK: The show's niceness is edgy enough.

Seen Saturday on its opening weekend, the production is loaded with fresh amounts of wit, savvy and elan both technical and performative. Holiday joy doesn't come without work, so if it's true the elaborate finale seems too effortful, that is part of the Christmas season's bounty as well. There's a fine balance of anticipation and surfeit, in other words, of the kind dependably embedded in this time of year.

It's also a time of feverish planning and plans gone awry. "Flashing Through the Snow" tries to connect with that feeling of spontaneity-bumping-up-against-organization from the open welcome to the audience on through the show. Ryan O'Shea launches into hearty greetings, checks herself as she realizes she's doing it alone, and fretfully enlists the rest of the seven-person ensemble to help her complete the introduction.

The planned awkwardness quickly yields to the polished integrity that's become a Phoenix hallmark. The awkwardness returns only at the end, in the last of a half-dozen sketches curated from submissions this year by director Bryan Fonseca and contributing writer Tom Horan.

Hoofing it: "A Very Phoenix Xmas 9" cast  plays reindeer games
The intricately clever "Les Miserabelves" (by Phoenix Xmas veteran Mark Harvey Levine) tests the mettle of the ensemble to a point perhaps beyond an audience's power to grasp. There's thoroughgoing parody of "Les Miz" in the songs and a send-up of holiday specials hung around the neck of Rudolph and his fellow reindeer. Dave Ruark pokes a vaguely Victor Hugo face through a snowman cutout and narrates the zany story in a faux-French accent. Ashley Kiefer's costumes and props gamely meet Levine's fervid imagination halfway. The note of triumph is finally secure, but with more of a nervous tremolo than useful.

Other sketches are uniformly strong, imaginative as well as better focused. Matters of piety and goodness, even with a deep structure of theology (as in the fertility-clinic encounters of Matt Hoverman's "Nativity"), are deftly handled. Anyone ever caught in voice-mail hell (don't bother to raise your hands) will be amused by Arianne Villareal's solo turn as a frustrated supplicant in Seth Freeman's "Press Pray."

"Santa Doesn't Live Here Anymore," by Patrick Gabridge, makes of the childhood
illusions surrounding the holidays a potentially lifelong barrier to facing the truth. Family life doesn't make puncturing illusions easy, a reality that Lincoln Slentz, Dave Ruark, and Carly Kincannon spin out to hilarious lengths.

Rob Johansen plays a crusty veteran of the War on Christmas carrying the battle to the secular enemy
Rob Johansen leads charge against secularized "Happy Holidays' world.
in "The Things They Merried," a pointed sketch by Eric Pfeffinger calling on the action-film skills of the entire company. The dark side of Christmas is more searchingly explored in "Rebel Without a Claus," with Ruark portraying a generic lost soul from the 1950s, pompadoured and leather-jacketed. The wayward brother of the boy who would grow up to become Santa Claus comes to a bad end.  His example turns out to prescribe the Jolly Old Elf's naughty-and-nice division of juvenile humanity every Christmas Eve. So now we know.

Fantasy imbues the song performances as well.  The seduction scenario of "Baby, It's Cold Outside" is upended in a smooth performance of the evergreen song by Slentz, O'Shea, Kincannon, and Villareal. "You Can Fly" features a background chorus in a showcase for a new (to me) manifestation of Johansen's  extraordinary physical acting: solo aerial acrobatics with a long red scarf suspended from above. And Ruark's vocal solo in "Hallelujah(s)" enables the music of G.F. Handel and Leonard  Cohen (performed by the cast's female quartet) to be almost credibly linked.

Arianne Villareal is about to find out she hasn't a prayer.
For sheer offbeat spectacle, the first-act finale brings Mariel Greenlee's choreography to bear in a fool-the-eye dance to a disco version of "Carol of the Bells." Out of total darkness, five pinpoint-lighted bodies — and sometimes just their upper or lower halves — cavort ingeniously.

As relief from all the virtuosity, now and then each cast member comes forward for an informal monologue relating a personal Christmas memory. From an entertainment perspective, these vary widely. The presentation style is inconsistent, with some of the players opting for a conversational manner, others choosing to stay within an acting persona and projecting their stories.

The variety apparently reinforces the purpose of these monologues as a chance for the actors to "be themselves': I'm undecided how well it worked. Like most Christmas traditions, the show's interplay between artifice and naturalness is never a settled matter. But "Flashing Through the Snow" is topnotch entertainment poised on that boundary. It's under the mistletoe all the way, and deserves a smooch.

In the shadow of Handel, prolific anthem composer Maurice Greene also wrote engaging proto-symphonies

Garry Clarke, director of Baroque Band
Light shed upon the environments in which major composers made their mark is always welcome. And that's what Chicago's Baroque Band, under the direction of Garry Clarke, has done with  the release of "Maurice Greene Overtures" (Cedille Records).

Greene (1696-1755) was a Londoner from cradle to grave, a friend of George Frideric Handel until a permanent breach between the two men intervened, and an organist whose muse was most often aroused to compose church anthems. According to Grove's Dictionary, Greene's posthumous reputation has been marred by the hostility of the two preeminent music historians of his day, John Hawkins and Charles Burney.

The Baroque Band's program consists  mainly of "Six Overtures in Seven Parts," multimovement pieces whose seven parts encompass strings, flute, oboe, and harpsichord. Filling out the new CD are three sets of harpsichord "lessons," performed by David Schrader, who is also the Baroque Band's harpsichordist, plus a couple of theatrically minded overtures — to St. Cecilia and to the opera "Phoebe."

The overtures often follow the French slow-fast format in their opening movements, marked by vigorous dotted rhythms that grab and hold the attention. The subsequent layout of movements, totaling three or four, is a distant precursor to the symphony, but without the fast-slow-fast balance, cumulative weight, and "narrative" sense that Haydn was to develop. The music resembles the instrumental suite, though particular dance forms are rarely the model.

Greene liked to mimic fugal structure with staggered entrances, but without following through formally. Sprightly rhythms and harmonic restlessness lend a feeling of novelty to music that inevitably reminds the listener of Handel. The tunes are often engaging and never dawdle, even for the sake of the repeats one might expect.  Their settings have a lightly contrapuntal transparency that Greene's flashes of genius never cloud.

The Overture to St. Cecilia concludes the disc handsomely, with a public flair that recalls the Great Saxon who influenced English music indelibly throughout the 18th century. Nestled among the overtures, the worthy academic sets that Schrader presents are somewhat less engaging, but must have been useful as teaching and salon pieces in London musical circles.

The performances are brightly recorded, with Schrader's harpsichord conspicuously binding everything together texturally. Clarke elicits a winning dynamic variety and alert articulation from the Baroque Band.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Gary Varvel cartoon controversy displays intolerance and failure to understand the art of the editorial cartoon

When Gary Varvel's regular cartoon feature in The Indianapolis Star depicted his response to President Obama's executive order on immigration, I was farther away in this hemisphere than I've ever been: Argentina.
Cropping focuses on the cartoon's controversial elements; a Norman Rockwell inspired grandma (gray hair in a bun, etc.) is not shown here, but the multigenerational whiteness of the family strikes a familiar chord.

It was a good place to confirm my perspective on the historic establishment and movement of cultures in North and South America. The takeaway message for this monolingual WASP: Rule, Hispania! Western Hemisphere history is overwhelmingly the result of conquest directed from the Iberian peninsula long before the first permanent settlements by the Northern Europeans whose descendants are about to begin their Thanksgiving feast in Varvel's cartoon. The midsized inland city — San Juan — where my wife and I were visiting our son was founded in 1562 — four-and-a-half decades before Jamestown, more than a half-century before Plymouth Rock.

Though Argentina in particular isn't adding to the pressure to reform immigration law and policy in the United States, many people born between there and here who share its language and aspects of its culture are now part of our society. Congressional inaction on how to give some de jure status to the de facto participation in American life by these millions forced Obama's hand. I fully support what he is doing to bring order and rationality to deeply rooted realities.

So I disagree with Varvel — as I have so often — on the political point he seems to be making. But I do not share the view of many of his critics that this cartoon is racist. I think labeling it or its creator with the r-word shuts down discussion and, more crucially, misunderstands the nature of Varvel's art.

The figure below is a scruffy progenitor of the cleaned-up Frito Bandito (above) long used to promote corn chips. Note that the commercial caricature's teeth are whiter and straighter, the mustache is thinner and styled, and the sombrero is intact. 

First of all, stereotypes are vital to the way editorial cartoons convey their meaning. Varvel has been hammered for his depiction of the man leading his children (apparently) through the dining-room window. Clearly, the family is meant to be seen as Mexican or Central American. If the baseball cap and the Pancho Villa mustache clearly signal this identity, it is a fairly gentle representation, certainly not as much of a demeaning caricature as, say, that notorious cartoon commercial shill, Frito Bandito.

The word "stereotype" has acquired a bad reputation, but the problem with stereotyping is not that it is entirely false or necessarily vicious; rather, it is a narrowing of perspective isolating certain perceptions about a group of people. It keeps us from appreciating the variety within the group being identified. Even so, it is vital to the way editorial cartoonists make their points within the single-panel confines of their genre. Favorable and unfavorable stereotypes may exist side by side; they used to be quite blatant, and figures were often slapped with labels to underline the identification, as in the 1940 cartoon (below right). The Nazi soldier is a huge, slumping monster; the Scandinavian maiden, virginal and natively costumed. The rape subtext is clear. Stereotypes are essential in conveying the message — dehumanizing the enemy, making his prey seem to cry out for our protection.

Varvel is quite clever at creating his own stereotypes or iconic signifiers of the politicians and activists he draws so well.  In Varvel's world, secular ACLU lawyers tend to offset their balding pates with short ponytails; they look ridiculous — that's the point. The cartoonist's visual mockery ranges from  exaggeration to winking fancifulness: Obama's ears are nearly as big as Dumbo's. Bill Clinton was always hilariously depicted in boxer shorts decorated with red hearts.  B. Patrick Bauer, the Indiana General Assembly's former Speaker of the House, dependably wore an askew toupee with the price tag attached. This is in the tradition of Herblock's decades-long depiction of Richard Nixon with five o'clock shadow; the cartoonist ceremoniously gave the controversial politician a clean shave after Nixon became president. (In retrospect, the stubble should have stayed.)

For several hours before the Star took down Varvel's cartoon, the undocumented immigrant dad had his mustache erased in a vain attempt to quell the outrage. The cartoonist was thus deprived of an essential element in conveying his message. The immigrants who are mostly the focus of dispute over immigration policy do come from the Hispanic countries south of the U.S. border. That identification was essential in order for Varvel to raise his objections to Obama's action. The Thanksgiving feast host's words in the cartoon bubble also make clear that Varvel's quarrel is with what Obama did. There is nothing in Varvel's art to suggest he is against Latin Americans.

The family's entrance through an open window instead of the front door emphasizes what Varvel sees as some immigrants' illegal intrusion into American society. Such imagery has to be part of the shorthand necessary to editorial cartooning. The unexpected guests couldn't be depicted showing up at the front door, as someone suggested in one of the many online comments it has been my depressing duty to read in studying this brouhaha. A front-door entry would convey legitimacy, which Varvel and those who think like him are at pains to withhold from undocumented immigrants.

The Varvel cartoon controversy seems to indicate a sad, narrowing trend of permissible discourse in America. Cries of "offensive" and "inappropriate" — and particularly the loose application of the "racist" label — tend to rule out of bounds creative expression that ought to be seen in a larger context. That context was glossed over in the public apology offered by Varvel's boss, Jeff Taylor.

On  this blog, I am a relentless defender of the arts.  I see Varvel's Nov. 21 cartoon as the latest example of his skillful expression of political viewpoints that are almost invariably opposed to mine. But this piquant drawing, like most of his work, falls well within the conventions —  including technical aplomb, symbiosis of word and image, communicative power, and conciseness — of the art form to which he has long contributed with distinction.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

'German lives matter': Shedding light on crowds and conflict in music and the real world through the prisms of Nuremberg and Ferguson

What a kerfuffle I got into when I objected to the interruption of a St. Louis Symphony Orchestra concert by demonstrators protesting the police shooting of Michael Brown! It was especially galling to some on Facebook that I posted my change of mind about the incident a day after saying it was an honor for the orchestra to be deemed relevant enough in today's world to attract protesters.

The much-dreaded rioting in the streets that marked the aftermath of the fatal August incident recurred spectacularly last night after a grand jury determined there were insufficient grounds for indicting the Ferguson police officer who killed Brown.

Police and protesters act out their roles in the aftermath of the grand jury's decision..
Now, in response to that mass lawlessness,  I'm ready to suggest that the SLSO be proactive in reaching out in good will to the community, specifically inviting the demonstrators back to Powell Hall with the hope that this time they will stay to listen.

And what will be on the program? Setting aside the impracticality of my selection, I maintain that the riot that ends the second act of "Die Meistersinger von Nuernberg" plus the protagonist Hans Sachs' monologue early in the third might be about the best that classical music has to offer on the subject.

There is precedent for the tumult Wagner brings to a peak in the second-act finale. Choruses in Passion settings called "turbas" allowed such composers as J.S. Bach to indulge a dramatic flair that the formality of musical settings of the Gospel narrative otherwise discouraged.

"Turbulent" derives from the Latin word for crowd ("turba,") and these choruses vividly contrast with stately Passion chorales and heart-wrenching arias in presenting uproar, specifically in opposition to Jesus during his final pre-Resurrection days. A short example that's better known than the vivid turbas in Bach's St. Matthew and St. John Passions will be heard often next month, when choruses throughout the English-speaking world bark out "He trusted in God, that he would deliver him, let him deliver him, if he delight in him" in performances of Handel's "Messiah."

The brawling that concludes Act 2 of "Die Meistersinger" is entirely a secular matter, springing from an aesthetic and personal dispute between Sextus Beckmesser, a foolish pedant, and his fellow mastersinger Sachs as Beckmesser attempts to perform a clumsy original song without interruption. Their noisy argument brings out the Nurembergers, including members of and adherents to competing guilds, and disorder piles up in delicious confusion.

Eugen Gura as Sachs contemplating eternal folly.
I'm not suggesting any but the roughest of  parallels between the operatic melee and the Ferguson disorders (which many brave residents tried to forestall, by the way).  But if a semistaged version of the Nuremberg riot were linked (after the Night Watchman's brief coda of consolation) to Sachs' reflective monologue "Wahn! Wahn! Ueberall Wahn!," a worthwhile lesson could be imparted that might make a small contribution to the healing Ferguson sorely needs now.

I'll quote Peter Branscombe's translation in part: "Madness! Madness! / Everywhere madness! / Wherever I look searchingly / in city and world chronicles, / to seek out the reason / why, till they draw blood, / people torment and flay each other / in useless, foolish anger! / No one has reward / or thanks for it: / driven to flight, / he thinks he is hunting; / hears not his own / cry of pain / When he digs into his own flesh / he thinks he is giving himself pleasure! / It is the old madness, / without which nothing can happen / nothing whatever! / If it halts somewhere in its course / it is only to gain new strength in sleep: / suddenly it awakens, / then see who can master it!"

Digging into our own flesh: Ferguson burns on Nov. 24.
You'll note that Sachs acknowledges the role of conflict in fomenting change. He deplores violence's  perpetual energy and (as the monologue continues) resolves to apply himself in transforming wasteful struggle into a perpetual good. Sachs' interests in the process are laden with cultural patriotism, which comes to the fore in his concluding warning and the opera's final chorus.

As Steven R. Cerf pointed out in the essay "False Dawn" (Opera News, Jan. 16, 1993), Sachs' address to his fellow Germans was often cut in Metropolitan Opera productions during the same era the Nazis were exalting it as support for their imperialist, racist program. Wagner's well-known and oft-proclaimed anti-Semitism seemed to lend proleptic support for this malign interpretation.

But in context, Sachs' "Wahn! Wahn! Ueberall Wahn!" monologue joins with the opera's finale to say that integrity is the watchword for all progress, reconciliation is a worthwhile agenda, and traditional values are a reliable but not exclusive guide to civic peace. Shared values undergird the hope that new ways of acting and thinking will be adopted for the benefit of all.

The citizens of Ferguson, civilian and law-enforcement personnel alike, are perhaps not hearing their own cries of pain as they play their accustomed roles. As far as race is concerned, maybe no Americans are hearing those cries properly.

"German lives matter," Wagner's philosophical cobbler is saying, in effect. "Black lives matter," the protesters shouted in October as they left the hall without staying for Brahms' German Requiem. With my fantasy concert in mind, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra could proclaim musically that all lives matter — aided by a nasty genius' masterwork.