Wednesday, January 29, 2014

On the brain beat: Cognitive neuroscientist Daniel Levitin talks about music at Butler

Daniel J. Levitin
I wonder if I've heard any one piece of music a thousand times, yet somehow I believed cognitive neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin when he said in a Butler University lecture Tuesday evening: "You can listen to a song a thousand times and still like it."

The surprise in that statement is that our brains also favor being surprised by as well as familiar with input. So why would it be the case that a great number of repetitions (presumably not in succession!) of the same composition — an experience particularly available today when everything is recorded and widely accessible — doesn't turn us off?

Levitin, author of the best-selling "This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession" (2006), offered a plausible answer to that question, though it is admittedly somewhat speculative. He said that it is likely that all music we've ever heard is stored somewhere in our brains.

This would mean that the thousandth time hearing something we liked the first time will not be compared to the 999th time we heard it, but to all that other music we've stored. So that favorite, often-heard piece retains its position as a favorite forever because what surprised you delightfully the first time you heard it is still there. Surprise never dies.

The Woods Lecturer, who spoke to a full house at Butler's Schrott Center, made other credible statements in an area of knowledge I'm an infrequent visitor to, though I have read Levitin's book.

#Musical improvisation can proceed from adept performers because scientists have discovered that the part of the brain that's an "active critic" of music is suppressed.  That sounds like ammunition for people who dislike jazz, for instance, but it makes perfect sense that both gifted and novice improvisers need to find a channel directly from their knowledge basis of improvisation at any given moment through to spontaneous "commentary" on it. Their inner critic can make useful judgments later, based on the performer's memory of how he/she did or, more completely, on a recording.

#"Template matches" between a familiar original and an arrangement for vastly different instruments are instantly recognized as the same piece. Levitin illustrated this by playing the beginning of the Russian Dance from Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker" in a version by four mandolins. The brain is "an exquisite change detector"  and can adjust without original timbre, identifiable pitch and even all facets except timbre, Levitin demonstrated with several recorded samples.

#"Music uses more of the brain than just about anything else we know of," Levitin said. He proceeded  to illustrate his point by showing a brain scan of the musician Sting. The areas of his brain that were activated as he made music were shown as colored patches. The patches were well distributed all over the brain surface. Levitin explained that aspects of processing music (more while making it than just listening to it) are assigned to different brain areas and are blended to produce our musical experience in a miracle of instantaneous teamwork.

#Twelve-tone music's apparent inability to survive in the broader culture, despite many adept creators and performers of it, may be because it frustrates the brain's need to have expectations satisfied. If those expectations are momentarily blocked or diverted (the "surprise" experience mentioned above), we find the music interesting. If expectations are systematically frustrated, as they are by compositions that treat all 12 tones equally, both understanding and emotional payoff are impossible. Arnold Schoenberg really did "emancipate the dissonance," in other words, but dissonance needs to remain in harness, apparently, to have a role to play in contexts that tend toward consonance.

Expectation may not be everything in music, Levitin wisely counseled.  "We want to be inspired," he said. Exactly.  And Levitin's lecture itself accomplished that, putting a scientific footing under the mysteries of music's eternal appeal.

Monday, January 27, 2014

New Amsterdam connection of Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra yields a concert of mixed rewards

The pointillistic precision of yMusic  made a good impression in Sunday's concert.
It's a pleasure to note that  Indianapolis was part of a musical coincidence Sunday: On the same night that Roomful of Teeth, an ensemble in which Caroline Shaw sings, was picking up a Grammy Award, Shaw's composition "From Rivers" received its second performance ever at Hilbert Circle Theatre.

"From Rivers"  received its first performance at the opening of the Eskenazi Hospital in Indianapolis in December. On Sunday, Indianapolis-born vocal soloist Kristin "KO" Newborn joined the Indianapolis Children's Choir, accompanied by Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra associate principal cellist Perry Scott, in a performance keynoting a concert produced by New Amsterdam Records and presented by the ISO (but not featuring the orchestra).

Caroline Shaw, winner of 2013 Pulitzer Prize
Shaw's "From Rivers" contrasts the intensity of the solo voice with the ethereal choral lines. The cello accompaniment is sufficiently adaptive to carry out the  function of anchoring what would otherwise be an a cappella challenge — perhaps to listeners as well as performers. A moderately fast section with a calypso feel relieved the solemnity of the composition's first part. "From Rivers" received a committed, gracefully controlled performance Sunday, led by ICC founder and artistic director Henry Leck.

Guest artist Julianna Barwick opened the program with one of her vocal-loop compositions. They typically lay down a pattern of phrases upon which Barwick sets a vocal line, sometimes undergirded by simple electronic-keyboard chords. What I heard was probably supposed to have strong emotional import, but didn't quite deliver anything engaging to me. Shimmering textures of "white-key" vocal harmony, shifting slowly like a kaleidoscope turned by an arthritic hand, set up in my mind cold, gleaming barriers that struck me as designed to keep the listener at a chilly, uncomfortable distance. I felt like a wanderer stranded in the cold at the foot of a glacier.

Barwick continued to be featured throughout the concert's first half, joined for three short pieces by the wonderfully well-trained ICC. Right before intermission, a Barwick composition called "Crystal Lake" was performed. Before it started, a ghastly blue light suddenly shone upon the children, who were ranged along the stage on risers. It leached vitality from their faces, making them look like pale, dead flowers somehow capable of singing. The effect was most unsettling, and the music offered no relief from that unfortunate impression.

The expert playing of the instrumental sextet yMusic, the ensemble featured in the concert's second half, injected some needed vitality into the program.  The young group — a string trio plus clarinet, flute and trumpet — must enjoy good rapport with composers, as a wide range of their cohorts has contributed to their repertoire.

YMusic opened with the perky pointillism of Son Lux's "Beautiful Mechanical," then really won the audience's hearts with the episodic, stirring "Proven Badlands"  (Annie Clark) before concluding its mini-set with Judd Greenstein's open-air "Clearing, Dawn, Dance." This is a group one would welcome hearing in a full-length concert, perhaps presented by the Ensemble Music Society.

I picked up a more favorable feeling for Barwick's music in the three works that ended the concert, partly because yMusic violinist Robert Moose's arrangements spread her fondness for static sonorities over a wider sound palette. Even so, these culminating pieces required a diminution of yMusic's capabilities, even while they continued to put on display the poise and sensitive preparation of the Indianapolis Children's Choir.


Sunday, January 26, 2014

Kevin Burke brings his long-running relationship comedy show to Theatre on the Square

Aping the ritualistic spear hoist of our ancestors, Kevin Burke is "Defending the Caveman."
"Defending the Caveman" is a rare kind of marquee theater event to have splashed down at Theatre on the Square over the weekend for an indefinite run.

Kevin Burke has been associated with Rob Becker's one-man, two-act show since 2003, principally at Harrah's Las Vegas, where he concluded a record-setting engagement last May. To see the Zionsville resident revive his interpretation amounted to an expert showcase of comic professionalism and timing, honed to a fare-thee-well but presented with just enough audience interaction to seem fresh.

On a set representing a timeless cross between a modern home and prehistoric dwellings, with representations of cave paintings on large stone-like slabs in the background, the Caveman reviews the inevitable distance between male and female worldviews. Specifically, the way these differences keep bobbing to the surface in marriages, causing tension and thwarting successful communication.

Becker's conceit, based perhaps on paleontology to a degree I am not competent to judge, is that this gulf between the sexes goes back to the time our ancestors lived in caves. Men were focused on hunting and protecting; women, on gathering and nurturing. Vast changes in human knowledge and living conditions since then have been awkwardly overlaid on long-established sex roles, in this view.

Thus, as interpreted by Burke, Becker can comically contrast such social interactions as what happens when a bowl of snack chips is getting low. When someone notices it in a group of women, all of them take the bowl out to the kitchen to replenish, chattering as they add any number of sprightly, delicious touches. When the same dearth of chips is noticed in a group of men, each vies to come up with the best reason why he should not be responsible for getting a new supply; the guy with the weakest excuse is the loser, and must go fetch more chips after the long stalemate. It's cooperation vs. negotiation.

When the communication narrows to one man and one woman sharing lives (the only Indiana-sanctioned intimate relationship permitted, as anyone not living in a cave — whoops! — is well aware), hostility lies barely beneath the surface. Women multitask, gather information as well as things that cost money, use their imaginations and glory in detail. Men focus intensely, aim at just what they want, one goal at a time, talk little for the sake of talking and with disguised emotional input, and find imagination and obsession with detail confusing.

Much of the show is devoted to a circuitous illustrated lecture designed to refute the charge that "all men are a--holes." At the end, it's clear that performer and playwright endorse the message that not only is the charge untrue, but also that a sense of humor and some serious empathy can bridge the gulf. On that level, "Defending the Caveman" amounts to boisterously entertaining couples therapy.

On opening night, Burke's blustering style and command of gesture and space made the most of this material. His facial expressions alone cover a wide range — he doesn't settle for only one way of displaying male bafflement, for example. The mimicry is never overdone, so that the performance is rooted in Kevin Burke, with detours into the impersonation of wives under delicate control. The point of view is consistent and genial in its search for understanding between the sexes.

The firmness of that outlook brings up a challenging point now that this show is ensconced at Theatre on the Square. After Saturday's performance, I overheard one man say to a female friend: "It was a good show, but none of the humor was directed at me. It was directed at straight men."

This is undeniable. "Defending the Caveman" is fortunately devoid of any disparagement of homosexuality, but there's no question it has to be accepted as oriented to heterosexual relationships, chiefly those of long standing. Thus, it is not about male-female dating behavior, either, except tangentially (e.g., the need to compliment the woman's appearance before she invites you to).

TOTS has long been a conspicuous haven for plays on gay themes — as "out" as they can be. Remember the "Corpus Christi" controversy? So, good luck to TOTS on the extension of artistic range represented by "Defending the Caveman." People not oriented toward traditional marriage (the very term is now fraught with controversy) may find truths they can relate to and have a good time, but they will have to use their imaginations to make it personal.

The Fury of Inadequate Proofreading: A verse meditation on the persistence of error

Typos are the gnats and horseflies of blogging.  Once detected they can easily be swatted away or squashed. Fresh swarms always hover nearby, but vigilance can forestall them, and those that get through the defenses can quickly be removed.  More indelible are typos in printed books. Everyone has found them, but as an inveterate reader of poetry books, I rarely see such smudges on their pages. This one is the most glaring I've ever come across: In The Columbia Anthology of American Poetry, edited by Jay Parini, the most famous poem of Richard Eberhart, "The Fury of Aerial Bombardment," is included. The original ends with this  poignant stanza: "Of Van Wettering I speak, and Averill / Names on a list, whose faces I do not recall / But they are gone to early death, who late in school / Distinguished the belt feed lever from the belt holding pawl." As printed in this handsome book, however, the last word has become "paw." The anthology is nearly 20 years  old, and maybe the blatant mistake was fixed in subsequent printings. But, given the way most people read anthologies, it was not until yesterday that I read the much-anthologized poem in the Columbia volume. Something about this flub sticks in the craw, inspiring the following response.
Richard Eberhart (1904-2005)

O stay the hand (or paw) that would impart
Mistaken clutching in the final line
To young men's learning, far exceeding mine,
Before war shattered their distinctions fine
And gross, evoked by Eberhart,

A poet who lived a hundred years and wrote
Nothing better, more furious and free
In savaging mankind's stupidity.
But in Columbia's anthology
It ends one letter shy, a broken note.

The pivoted bar, engaging with a wheel
That's toothed so as to stop or further motion
Has vanished just as sure as their devotion
To what they felt as duty in an ocean
Of destruction claiming all they knew as real.

The pawl they studied here's a hairy paw.
Who thought that "Fury" had a silly end?
What student proofing galleys failed to mend
The flaw? Or editor to be the poet's friend?
Man's bent toward error — what the poet saw.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Aging, resurgent sports stars (Manning, Federer — Harvey[?]) have a path of purple prose laid at their feet

(Written after wading through the hagiographic, overheated prose of SI's feature on Peyton Manning and somebody else's profile of Roger Federer after he won his quarterfinal match in Australia, but before he lost to Rafael Nadal in the semifinal. I've tried to represent the flavor of this perfervid sports journalism, though not the excessive length. But it is still too long, and thus a tribute to the underrated sport covered herein.)

Peyton Manning
Roger Federer
The whispers had started, the knowing, dismissive nods, the shrinking sales of memorabilia.

Rueful head-shakings, too, but only from the more compassionate fans. And those are not the dominant voices in the unforgiving universe of contemporary sports fanaticism.

The old champ had got wind of the negative chatter, of course: Jay Harvey had to add to his struggle to get back into sleeping trim a ferocious battle to shake off and neutralize the naysayers. They'd heard all the unflattering stories, of course, of an icon tarnished by age and its role in the mysterious decline in his mastery of sleep.

Harvey well knew how readily the truth becomes interlarded with speculation and galloping falsehoods:  How he sometimes had to go downstairs in the middle of the night to read and sip a half-glass of milk, sometimes not returning to bed for an hour or two.  How he (more rarely) manfully refrained from tossing and turning, grinding out sleepless episodes motionless on the mattress, hoping that stoic inactivity could lull him back to sleep.
Jay Harvey

Rumors of his indulgence in Ambien, a controlled substance in his specialty and thus verboten,  had corroded his pristine reputation. Though he readily admitted to reliance on the allowable supplement Melatonin, cynical fans had labeled it a gateway drug. And implied that the gateway was a long way behind the tarnished hero.

How easy it had all been long ago, before he somehow lost his touch.  Before the injuries and other physical setbacks. The charlie horses and unpredictable, phantom-like muscle cramps. An arm's numbness and tingling fingers after his head had lain upon the limb for a few restful hours. The weird dreams that generated wakefulness at all the wrong times.

Age visits all of us who are lucky not to be cut off young.  But with athletes, the pathos of the process can be overwhelming. Its inexorable toll can hold fans, coaches, teammates and long-winded sportswriters — not to mention slumming novelists and restless feature writers — tightly in its seductive grip.

Evocations of past glory won't go away. Instead, those fading moments shine all the brighter when compared to evidence of current decline, especially in prose needing the juice of poignancy. And the painful recollections burrow all the more deeply into the recesses of sleep athletes' minds.  A past shimmering in legend becomes a cloud obscuring any attempted resurgence of glory after tenacious episodes of mediocrity.

"I can remember he could nod off expertly in the front row of a lecture class," recalled college classmate Deke "Duke" Seminaroff. "Especially after lunch.  He was a natural. Sleeping was meat and drink to him."
A middle-school gym teacher was unstinting in praise, his voice breaking as he recalled: "Jay was in a class by himself," said Quentin "Dozer" Moser. "I could hardly keep him awake. When it came to sleep, he almost defied coaching."

Now, as he fought to regain his quondam form, don't think Harvey didn't often remember the graceful ease with which he had once sunk into the arms of Morpheus.  His focus had been such that the appropriateness of the setting was never an issue with him. He was always in training. The confident moves, the burnished technique, the firm release from consciousness were the envy of all.

But now, the fans who used to swap tales of his drowsiness and how it slid exquisitely into REM sleep were starting to shift their attention to younger phenoms.The ambitious youngsters who slept soundly and skillfully, the contenders for GOAT status among world-class sleepers — on and on they advanced. What need for old heroes when new sensations came along year after year?

Most painfully, he worried about dishonoring the memory of his parents, who had guided him through the blessedness of sleep from birth on through the halcyon days of infancy. And then, having to yearn helplessly for the unparalleled skills he was able to take from this gift  on through childhood. To make something of it like no one else. To set sleep aficionados' tongues awag with admiration of his  prowess.

Eventually came  the "golden slumber" period during which Harvey defeated all challengers. The acclamation, the endorsements, the approach of starry-eyed fans, many of them envying the sublime surfeit of sleep that came so readily to him. They hoped some of it would rub off. They counted themselves lucky to leave his presence with drooping eyelids. They were usually not disappointed.

Suburban moms pushing mega-strollers would shyly approach with their restless toddlers, hoping for a share of his balm. Stroking those little hands, muttering a few quiet words while locking eyes with fretful tiny ones, and soon the tykes would sink into blissful unconsciousness, their grateful mothers rendered speechless.

Now, here he was, seeming to confirm the scoffs of the doubters, encouraging internet trolls to deploy their inevitable barbs on sports comment threads. Seasoned professional observers tsk-tsked at what had become of the Harvey of old. "I've seen him twitching and even pathetically playing possum," said veteran sports columnist Grantland Risotto. "His long-form sleeping has totally disintegrated. Strategic thinking — kaput. There's no rhythm, all the smoothness is gone. His technique is as lumpy as a whorehouse mattress.  He can't seem to manage much more than the fitful napping of a college sophomore in an intramural league."

Negative appraisals by experts were one thing whose truth Harvey could grimly acknowledge. They steeled his resolve. But slanderous reports could not easily be quashed: It was said that now when those suburban strollers were gingerly pushed toward him, their sleeping occupants would suddenly wake up and wail, the hopeful mothers recoiling in horror.

Harvey had become an avatar of disturbing wakefulness. He was helplessly writing a personal epic of failure, a narrative of his departure from soporific glory that he might have titled "The Insomniad." Yet, amazingly, this is when the grit characteristic of true champions seems to have begun to underwrite his survival and slow return to triumph.

He gamely embarked on a desperate regimen to return to greatness: Trying out a variety of sleep masks, selecting foam ear plugs with care in an attempt to achieve maximum noise suppression. "I've not gone away as much as some people would like to suppose," Harvey said with quiet defiance,  ostentatiously rubbing sleep from his eyes. "I'm back in the game. You can't count out experience so easily. Conditioning is key. I'm ready to outsleep anyone, really."

And so it has proved. Fresh rounds of training. Systematic coaching. Grueling marathon sessions of intensive napping. Self-forced reading of dull textbooks that self-confident but insufficiently industrious tyros tend to shun.

 Risotto has revised his dismissive opinion of the formerly lackluster Harvey: "He's in the zone now. Of course, aging people inevitably have more trouble sleeping. But he's done an impressive job of appearing to turn back the clock. He's fighting against time, and I say more power to him."

Harvey seems poised to regain his unofficial title as the Sultan of Somnolence. His name begins again to arouse collective yawns of approval from a sports-mad populace.

The venerable legend snores gently once more on his pillowed pinnacle.

 "Pleasant dreams, champ!" the world murmurs gratefully.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

IRT focuses on Anne Frank and some never-to-be-forgotten lessons

The final scene of James Still's "And Then They Came for Me" at IRT.
Some events that will always be worth careful study also need to be examined through other kinds of presentation. That's what "And Then They Came for Me: Remembering the World of Anne Frank" accomplishes in focusing dramatically on a few young persons' experience of the Nazi regime's systematic slaughter of European Jews in World War II.

Indiana Repertory Theatre opened its third presentation (the other two were the 1996 premiere and 2005) of James Still's multimedia play this weekend on the Upperstage.

Still, the IRT's playwright in residence, effectively incorporates videotaped personal testimony from two Holocaust survivors in a dramatic presentation of their stories. Both of them briefly knew Anne Frank in Amsterdam after German armies had occupied the Netherlands.

Thus, "And Then They Came for Me" is grounded in its links to the most famous Holocaust story. When he was Helmuth Silberberg, Ed Silverberg knew Anne as a teen until the Frank family went into hiding. Eva Geiringer (now Schloss), an Austrian girl whose family escaped to Amsterdam after the Anschluss, was slightly acquainted with her as a schoolgirl in the Dutch capital.

As the subtitle indicates, this is a memory play, ending with something even stronger — a tableaulike, candlelit memorial to persecuted, hounded, tortured and exterminated European Jewry.  But it is seen through the lens of youthful promise and hope snuffed out by an evil regime.

Courtney Sale, IRT's new associate artistic director, keeps the emotional scale intimate, even as it reflects outward on a continent-wide scenario of suffering and, sometimes, survival against overwhelming odds.

Jennifer Johansen and Elizabeth Hutson
The energy that resists thwarting but rises to the occasion when needed — typical of youth at its best — is captured memorably in the performances of Elizabeth Hutson as Eva and Joseph Mervis as Helmuth. And making the almost saintly figure of Anne Frank engaging in her relationship to Eva and Helmuth was Zoe Turner in a vivacious performance. The fourth young actor, Weston LeCrone, cast a spell of personalized uneasiness over the stage as a Hitler Youth, and also came up to the mark as Eva's brother, Heinz.

The two adult roles, vividly contrasted as the parents of Eva and Helmuth, were taken by Mark Goetzinger and Jennifer Johansen. The mother-daughter rapport between Johansen and Hutson in extreme circumstances was performed with a moving poise between stoicism and desperation.

The set, with its light-shadow contrasts evoking newsreel footage and the sharpness of memory, was dominated by a set of railroad tracks, severely foreshortened, which functioned as a symbol of forced departure to the death camps and the occasional route of escape from that fate.

Over that severe terrain, the cast aptly re-created school and home scenes in the characters' moments of fleeting freedom as well as the privation, seclusion and imprisonment that engulfed them. Screens above the stage focus mainly on interviews with the articulate Ed Silverberg and Eva Schloss. Their even-toned testimony is effectively set against the anxiety and terror of the events as they unfolded in these lives and so many others' a relatively short time ago. As that time recedes, it will remain important to evoke it in such a form as "And Then They Came for Me."

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Principal oboist gets concerto showcase at ISO's first Classical Series concert since November

Jennifer Christen performed Mozart's oboe concerto with ISO.
No Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra first-chair player within memory have I so looked forward to hearing in a concerto as Jennifer Christen, the oboist hired as principal in 2012.  Acquaintance with her abilities was delayed somewhat by the lockout in the fall of that year, but there's been ample opportunity since to enjoy her floating, pristine sound in the many oboe solos that dot the symphonic repertoire.

In this weekend's shortened shortened schedule (just the Coffee Concert Thursday and Friday evening's performance, reviewed here), Australian conductor Daniel Smith made his ISO debut as well.

To savor the skills and artistry of two excellent musicians under 30 in the same concert was most heartening.

But first, a consideration of Christen's performance of Mozart's Oboe Concerto in C major. With excellent support from Smith and her ISO colleagues, she gave a winning performance of a work also known in its D-major transcription (by the composer) for flute. I prefer the oboe version in part because the single-reed instrument's timbre suits what I hear as the comic flair of this music.

And the way Christen played it was revelatory: The first movement provided her with an immediately impressive showcase — well-articulated and subtly ornamented, with echo phrases dialed back slightly in dynamic level. Her cadenzas and fermatas throughout were nicely balanced between virtuosity and gracefulness. The lovely melody of the slow movement was admirably sustained and tender, and the finale found the soloist's playing effervescent, full of wit and energy.

Smith's sensitivity as an accompanist was complemented by the showcase performances he elicited from the orchestra in two well-known works:  Dvorak's Carnival Overture and Beethoven's Symphony No. 6 in F major ("Pastoral"). The predominantly festive mood of the Dvorak achieved a high level of sizzle from the start, and the contrasting romantic interlude featured fine solos from associate concertmaster Philip Palermo and English-horn player Timothy Clinch.

What was a more amazing exhibition of Smith's skills came after intermission, with an expansive, airy interpretation of the Pastoral Symphony. You could feel the open-air breezes in the swelling phrases of the first movement, Beethoven's introduction to the country scenes he was inspired by but had no intention of depicting literally. Smith drew from the orchestra a lilting forward momentum there and in the "scene by the brook" that makes up the second movement.

He stirred up lots of rustic energy in whipping along the country dancing of the third movement. The feeling was earthy without ever becoming coarse. The fourth-movement storm was as intense as and even scarier than the violent perturbations of later compositions with the benefit of technical advances in instruments and vaster panoplies of percussion.

Timpanist Jack Brennan deserves kudos for providing assertive, spot-on thunder, which forms the stormy backbone of the fourth movement before the finale applies balm to the ruffled feelings of the country folk and arouses their pious gratitude. Apart from mushy passagework in the cellos at one point, the neat flow of the finale progressed unimpeded.

A notable boon to assistant principal oboist Roger Roe from Christen's conventionally mandated absence from the rest of the program was his getting the symphony's abundant first-chair solos. He helped make the evening a spectacle of double-reed glory.


Friday, January 17, 2014

Moscow Festival Ballet presents a buoyant fairy tale in 'Swan Lake' at the Tarkington

Prince Siegfried and sorcerer Von Rothbart vie for control of Odette.
It got off to a rough start in 19th-century Russia, but has since become iconic, with its white tutus and graceful wing beats. "Swan Lake," a classic ballet with memorable music, has been treated to a wide range of adaptation and interpretation over the past century and a quarter.

Through Saturday, the touring Moscow Festival Ballet is presenting the Petipa-Ivanov-Tchaikovsky work at the Tarkington at Carmel's Center for the Performing Arts.

Thursday's opening-night performance made clear that this production would do more than emphasize the happy ending in which the Prince's love for Odette ends the spell that has trapped young women in the form of swans. It would also soft-pedal the disappointment at court that the Prince rejects the foreign brides who are presented to him, while making the most of the comic possibilities offered by the Jester and the Tutor.

Prince Siegfried with Odette and the swans
Buoyancy and optimism ran in a clear line through the performance, underlined through another production choice. The conventional casting of the same dancer as Odette and Odylle, the sorcerer's daughter who fools the Prince into thinking she is Odette, is set aside in this production.

The difference in their personalities is embodied in two dancers: On opening night,  they were Olga Gudkova (Odette) and Maria Sokolnikova (Odylle). The upside: doubling the opportunity to see two ballerinas in leading roles.  The downside: Sacrifice of tour-de-force sizzle and reduction of the evil-enchantment factor.

Prince Siegfried, as danced by Nurlan Kinerbaev,  had the royal demeanor thoroughly in control. The Prince's lovesick passion causes him to risk everything by accepting the Odette's story of the curse and casting in his lot with her. That was not much in evidence in Kinerbaev's performance. Nobility is its own reward, but perhaps ardor ought to have been more infused into the princely qualities he consistently displayed.

Sokolnikova's portrayal of Odylle was electrifying. Her dancing was sharply focused and alluring, and a dependable high point in the role — the variation with 32 fouettes in the Act 3 pas de deux — was expertly brought off. Gudkova's Odette was properly chaste and contained, but maybe too much so to underscore the pathos of her plight under the curse.

Accompanied by technical flashes and booms, Evgeny Rudakov's Von Rothbart was thoroughly effective, no more so than in his fourth-act descent upon the swan maidens in what turns out to be a futile attempt to assert his power over the Prince's determination.

Viacheslav Tapkharov's Jester amazed with his relentless bounciness and feats of athleticism. Despite what appeared to be a couple of hard landings, he never failed to be captivating. His companion as a "court character" — the almost non-dancing role of the Tutor — was amusingly filled by Dmitry Romanov.

Other high points in Thursday's performance:  a precisely timed, vigorous Dance of the Cygnets in Act 2, an elegant first-act Pas de Trois, and among the character dances of the brides in Act 3, the Mazurka, with Elena Khorosheva as the prospective Polish Bride. The corps de ballet, chiefly the swans surrounding Odette, moved like an orderly dream — a guarantee of "Swan Lake"'s perpetual charm.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Royal Philharmonic and Zukerman take the long view of the Austro-German mainstream

The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the London ensemble founded by the legendary Thomas Beecham, played the Palladium Wednesday night. Under the guidance of principal guest conductor Pinchas Zukerman, the concert traced the traditional concert boundaries of Austro-German music — from J.S. Bach to Arnold Schoenberg  (before Schoenberg took that music over the tonality border into a new language).

"Verklaerte Nacht" (Transfigured Night) exists in both sextet and string-orchestra versions. The sacrifice of intimacy when the latter version is performed is slight.  There's no doubt that the score's luxuriant half-hour length and the richness of its interior voices permit a large ensemble to make more of an effect. Of the three works on the program, this was the one that presented Zukerman as a conductor only, and his rapport with players and score was evident.

The 1899 piece is program music with an unusual descriptive basis, partly because of the poem that inspired it: The night of the title becomes transfigured when the woman's confession of infidelity turns into the couple's vow to raise the child fathered by another man as their own.

The RPO's performance was illuminating. The introductory section progressed in a measured and sober way, with just enough tension to suggest the difficult conversation the lovers are embarking upon. The strings sounded rich and alert to every textural and harmonic shift, from top to bottom. Particularly notable were the bold, sometimes slashing viola lines and several conspicuous viola solos played by principal Fiona Winning.

The "flautando" passage (an ethereal effect named for its flute-like sound) near the end was mesmerizing, and the hymnlike conclusion held the audience spellbound. Zukerman made the pauses and tension shifts emotionally compelling, and his players consistently adhered to a high level technically.

The program opened with Bach's A Minor violin concerto, in which the most notable feature was the characteristic Zukerman tone, sweet yet virile, firmly centered but not too forceful, and characterized by smooth, seductive phrasing. The first movement came off a little glib, but the nobility imparted to the slow movement raised the emotional profile of the performance considerably. The finale was perky and well-coordinated throughout.

For Brahms' Concerto in A minor for violin, cello and orchestra — familiarly known as the Brahms double -- Zukerman was joined by his wife,  Amanda Forsyth, in the other solo role. She is a capable cellist, sensitive as to dynamics and rhythm to a degree that seemed almost in her husband's class, but lacking his pearly sound and ingratiating flair. This is a difficult work to bring off with a conductor playing one of the solo parts. As a result, there were momentary coordination problems in the last movement.

Called back for an encore, Zukerman and Forsyth offered part of the finale of Kodaly's Duo, which featured a folklike melody for the violin — and thus one more opportunity for the appreciative audience to take away in its memory a little bit more of Zukerman's special gifts.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Long story short: We guard our own jealously, we appropriate others' — some thoughts on stories in three current films and elsewhere

Many years ago on "All Things Considered,"  host Susan Stamberg interviewed Philip Roth, long before his "retirement" from writing fiction.  At the time, he was among a handful of the most celebrated American authors. They were discussing the trouble Roth had got into during his first brush with fame because of how he wrote about Jewish-American life — critically and even corrosively. The pushback was fierce. You can get some idea of what the crisis felt like by reading Judge Wapter's scathing letter to the Roth stand-in (Nathan Zuckerman) in "The Ghost Writer."

Philip Roth had a firm answer for Susan Stamberg
Stamberg wanted to know if Roth had considered going in another direction with his work to avoid more hurtful controversy. "So did you ever think that you should just give up all this stuff?" I remember her asking.

"But this is MY STUFF!"  Roth thundered. As far as I can recall, the rest of the interview went OK, but this brief exchange stands out for its authorial assertiveness. It was the unanswerable answer to Stamberg's question: If the stuff is ours, we can't abide the thought of being alienated from it.

Most of us have neither the inclination nor the skill to make our "stuff" public and subject to uncontrollable scrutiny and misinterpretation. Yet we all have the raw material of experience available to form our identity, and we tend to shape the stuff of our experience into stories that we become quite proprietary about. P. L. Travers did that with "Mary Poppins," and the English author's struggle over granting film rights to Walt Disney (in "Saving Mr. Banks")  is thoroughly backgrounded in her memories of childhood turmoil in Australia.

But we do more than assert ownership of our own stories.  We appropriate others' through theft or aggressive, smothering interpretation and repetition, even when using them as a distraction from what we can't bear to give personal expression to. 

Bradley Cooper plays FBI agent in "American Hustle" (with Christian Bale, right)

In "American Hustle," a young FBI agent's restiveness about the control his anxious boss exerts takes a violent turn.  Among the funnier, more ominous indications of that outcome is the film's long-running depiction of the boss' attempt to tell an ice-fishing story. It is sidetracked time and again by his underling's premature extraction of meaning from it. It's a power play, draining and even emasculating to the boss; the subordinate's impositions on the tale subtly upset the hierarchical order in the bureau. The rogue agent triumphs (though he'll get his comeuppance) through sabotaging the story with intrusive commentary.

In "Philomena," the title character takes another tack. Her stuff is so painful that it's all she can do to follow through on an investigative reporter's leads on the fate of the son who was taken away when she was a doting teen mother. Her outlet is romance novels, which she remembers in excruciating detail. When she first recounts one to the reporter, we see his boredom is palpable; on the story spectrum, this fictional pablum lies at the opposite pole from his interests.

The final scene is visually restrained, giving space to Philomena's volubility about her pastime. After catharsis has been reached at the Irish orphanage where the traumatic separation had occurred, we see from above the car carrying her and the reporter away, as Judi Dench's voice recounts the plot of Philomena's latest cherished reading. The bond between reporter (Steve Coogan) and Philomena is best realized by leaving his reaction unseen.

Stories we know to be false offer  pleasures that spill over into what we do with our own "stuff."  Few of us shoot straight. Narrative lying for self-preservation is important to us — for some people almost literally so. One of the characters in Sholem Aleichem's"Two Anti-Semites" is a known liar, we are told, and the winking narrator thus can't vouch for his account of this encounter: On a train in czarist Russia a Jewish traveling salesman hopes to be left alone by napping with an anti-Semitic newspaper over his face. The second man comes into the compartment, figures out that he's a fellow Jew, and (Aleichem tells us) his "first thought is: 'This'll make a great story; this'll have 'em rolling in the aisles."

So he comes back after buying the same issue of the scurrilous rag and settling in across from the salesman with his copy likewise covering his face. The bond that forms after the first deceiver wakes up is a parable of joy surmounting the hidden pain of having to go through life disliked and feared by most of your countrymen. And the second man has some new stuff.

The fellow-feeling that comes as we share stories impels us to embroidery just as much as to truth-telling. We get along by being believed, so we want it understood (but not too explicitly) that we can exert whatever control we feel like over our stories. Desdemona falls in love with Othello because of the powerful stories he tells of his military exploits. Let the listener beware.

We are magpies of stories, but why stop there? We covet every well-articulated thought of those we admire or envy— in or out of narrative.  The nerve of the storyteller can never be underestimated. We are tempted to counter it somehow by insisting it is part of our stuff.  We want to match him nerve for nerve. Blaise Pascal wrote, boldly: "It is not in Montaigne, but in myself, that I find all that I see in him." A salute to Montaigne, perhaps, but notice who comes out on top.

There is no innocence in telling stories — or precious little. How often socially are we trumped after we've told "our" story by someone saying, "Reminds me of the time that..." — and before long our story has disappeared inside theirs? Sure, you can plausibly argue the "Reminds me..." person is just staying on topic, furthering the conversation.  That's part of the bond that makes stories imperishable.

Even so, the story-killers are always with us, too. What if the second Jew in "Two Anti-Semites" had been a Judge Wapter type? "Look at you, you should be ashamed of yourself. A good Jew, lying here with an anti-Semitic newspaper over your face.  What a dishonor for us!" Result: No story. Or a lesser one, for sure.

"The Ghost Writer" introduces the Philip Roth stand-in he didn't let go of for a long, long time: Nathan Zuckerman is a dependable guardian and exponent of Roth's stuff. Anne Frank makes a startling appearance in that novel, you may remember. There's no storyteller cannier than Roth: Anne Frank is sort of the black hole of Jewish stories — since the Holocaust, at any rate. Her story darkly, powerfully sucks in all the others. Only Roth would have dared to appropriate her. On with the story!

We are all claim-jumpers when it comes to staking out story territory. Our holdings may fundamentally be our stuff, but we defend them so vigorously in part because we may not have come by all our claims legitimately. We will never be dissuaded, of course: As John Barth declares in the title of his 1996 collection dealing with the fluidity, conventions, allure and evasions of our most vital tales:  On With the Story.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Phoenix Theatre production of "Tribes" takes on the sorrows of trying to understand

People in families that talk a lot but don't really listen to each other are a staple of drama. There must be something basically dramatic in the premise that intimacy doesn't necessarily breed understanding.

How much more extreme such a situation is in the English family that Nina Raine scrutinizes in "Tribes," in which a scrappy, proudly artsy/intellectual "tribe" includes a deaf young man brought up to lip-read his connection to the hearing world. His escape from the family's practice of tearing each other down is a mixed blessing, tipping over thunderously into his marginalization.

The play opened this weekend on the Phoenix Theatre's Basile Stage in a production that forces upon the audience renewed attention to how we communicate and how intensely loyal we can become to our particular communicative style, especially when that style congeals into tribal thinking.

The profane, polemical Christopher, a retired professor now focusing on his love of intellectual combat through argumentative writing, sets the tone for this family. The opening scene of "Tribes," as seen Friday night, presented a shell game in which one struggled to find the pea of sympathy: Christopher is repulsive, his wife Beth is basically too cowed and ditsy to be an effective counterweight to the bully she married, and siblings Daniel and Ruth are at each other rudely all the time. Only Billy, deaf from birth, enlists our sympathy right off the bat. Andrew Martin's sensitive and ultimately strong portrayal guarantees that.

Sylvia (right) meets Billy's family in "Tribes."
Directed by Rich Rand, the show faces the problem of moving hearing audiences beyond pity.  The playwright assists that process by creating one outsider character with a foot in both worlds: Sylvia, born hearing but going deaf as a genetic consequence of her parents' deafness. As Billy's romance with Sylvia (played passionately and with articulate pain by Ryan O'Shea) quickly blossoms, he finds a way forward into a self-confidence his family never permitted. Crucially, their most stubborn error was refusing to learn sign language or to encourage Billy to learn it. Though Billy expresses his love-fueled burst of deaf pride riskily, the path toward a healthy power shift in the troubled family can be glimpsed at the end.

"Abusive love is all that's on the table here," Stephen Hunt (as Christopher) roundly declares in the first act. Fortunately, it is at least some sort of love to build on, and Hunt gave a witty portrayal of a narrow-minded man convinced that all his biases and predilections are fully justified. It's a toxic love, though, insofar as his children have absorbed the expectation that they must achieve somehow, but without getting the emotional resources to do so.

That has particularly warped Daniel, as Matthew Goodrich's illuminating performance showed. It moved from caustic cynicism to exposure of inner conflicts as the symptoms of Daniel's deep-seated mental illness resurface. The last scene offered searing proof in this performance that he, improbably, is the best-prepared in this household to make a breakthrough to Billy.

Kathryn Bartholomew displayed the fierce pathos of Ruth's operatic ambitions without making them ridiculous in the way Daniel insists they are. Everyone here is desperate for validation: Gigi  Jennewein cunningly convinces us of Beth's goodwill as she struggles with a habit of conflict avoidance but is unable to come up with a strategy to bring it off.

The technical side of the show (credit to Jeff Martin and Tom Horan) is superbly handled, conveying some of the persistent annoyance of deafness — it is not a silent world — and on screens translating signed dialogue into the written word.

As members of the hearing "tribe," we are constantly called to account by "Tribes" for our use of the well-worn verbal chips we slide into the conversational pot:  Sylvia admits to Billy that as she becomes less and less sure of what people are saying to her,  she falls back on "Really?" to hide her disability. And Billy, telling Daniel of his new romance, catches on to his brother's repetition of a perfunctory "Right" as thinly veiled disapproval.

Cultural engagement with the uneasy relationship of the deaf and the hearing has thrown up some memorable probes of how prejudice takes root and, even with more generous inclinations, produces agonizing separation and cruelty. On the big screen, examples include the fraught love affair of "Children of a Lesser God" and the horrific sexist prank of "In the Company of Men."

In the latter film's final scene, Mark Recker's character, regretting his role in the abuse of a deaf co-worker, shouts in vain at her: "Listen to me! Listen to me!" As powerful as that is, Nina Raine's play and the Phoenix's production of it assert this imperative more profitably with bilingual rigor, undergirded by the universal need for personal growth and reciprocal love.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Dance Kaleidoscope starts the New Year off to the beat of Gershwin

"An American in Paris": Brandon Comer and Caitlin Negron
"American Rhapsody" is the blended title of Dance Kaleidoscope's first program of 2014, reflecting David Hochoy's interpretation of two of George Gershwin's evergreen long-form compositions: "Rhapsody in Blue" and "An American in Paris."

Mariel Greenlee in Hochoy's "Farewell"
Thursday night's preview performance showed the three works (the other being Hochoy's 1988 "Farewell," set to "Aria: Cantilena" from Heitor Villa-Lobos' "Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5") to be in good shape, considering that the troupe's Indiana Repertory Theatre performance home was closed Monday and Tuesday this week, thanks to the snow and cold.

"An American in Paris"  is a tone poem often praised for its insouciant combination of an aural picture postcard of life in the French capital between the world wars and one nameless, representative American's reaction to what he experiences on a visit there.

Hochoy's choreography grapples cleverly with the score's richness and its colorful weaving together of tunes and rhythmic figures that lean toward a mood of upbeat excitement. The American of the title is largely personified by DK's Brandon Comer. The rest of the troupe serves to flesh out the Parisian scene — the gendarmes, the boulevardiers, the coquettes and matrons along the Champs Elysees, the bouncing passengers on a city bus.

Gershwin's tone-painting of the City of Light, conspicuous at the beginning and end and punctuated by the first symphonic use of taxi horns, is well-represented by touches of realism in the choreography. And when the American encounters a Vamp in a red dress (Caitlin Negron) and the diffuse energy becomes more erotically charged, Hochoy has set upon Comer a fluid transition that the dancer expertly manages.

The work's languid trumpet tune gives the occasion for an expansive, sparkling Negron-Comer duet, but perhaps the high point for me was the ensemble outburst that followed, ushered in by rumbling saxophones. Its abstract, roiling energy made for a good contrast to the more literal scene-painting of the opening and closing episodes.

If I missed something in the new work, it may have to do with a different notion of what "An American in Paris" is all about. I hear more nostalgia, loneliness and homesickness in the course of the piece than Hochoy seems to feel. Comer's remarkable stamina and joy was fun to watch, but it was all in the service of a very sunny interpretation of the music.

This Hochoy-Comer American doesn't seem to nurse the slightest regret; his longing for the Vamp is never shadow-flecked. When one of his Paris experiences vanishes, whether abruptly or slowly, he is smilingly ready for the next one to come along. That's a strong feature of the original's emotional message, but it's not the only one.

The revival of "Rhapsody in Blue" (2006) reflects a more nuanced approach to Gershwin's music. It was a feast for the eyes, particularly when the artfully patched, tight-fitting costumes gave way to dazzling ballroom attire  — a blue riot of swirling dresses and tailcoats — for the big romantic tune everyone thinks of first when they think of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue."

Hochoy uses the jazz-band version of the score —  a raw and more angular piece than the silken full-orchestra version  most concertgoers know. He fashions compact solos in three places when the piano is heard alone. As the last one goes into a rapid-fire repeated-note pattern, the ensemble takes over with almost feisty aplomb.

Ensemble flair and vigor worthy of the original: "Rhapsody in Blue"

It seemed to me that Hochoy is responding to this work's trailblazing cross-genre cheekiness, channeling the excitement the composer and the Paul Whiteman Orchestra aroused in 1924 by bringing a jazz-based composition into the concert hall. The foregrounding of Liberty Harris and Timothy June in this basically ensemble piece was well-managed, and Hochoy's high spirits and sense of humor cane through in the dancers' performance.

"Farewell" comes from Hochoy's pre-DK days with the Martha Graham company. Its lyrical, introspective nature made for a beautiful contrast with the two Gershwin works; Hochoy's program-building knack remains unassailable.
It has the intimacy of chamber music, with the principal focus on the female dancer (Mariel Greenlee) in representing the pain of loss, with two male dancers (Timothy June and Zach Young) lending fleeting but genuine support, as well as suggesting its withdrawal through changed circumstances.

The music's interlude, with the solo singing of the Portuguese text in the arrangement with guitar, brought out the clear Martha Graham influence on the young Hochoy. The solo's sharp angles and abrupt movement suggested both vulnerability and resistance. In "Aria (Cantilena)"'s last section, with the resumption of the wordless soprano line (this time hummed), Greenlee touchingly reflected an elegant acceptance of the unwanted but necessary goodbye.


Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Two old heroes come by my house on horseback out of the snow-filled woods

Yesterday I was ineffectually trying to knock down snow and ice from my roof gutters, following advice intended to help me avoid flooding and leakage when the otherwise welcome thaw comes at the end of the week.

My ladder was almost useless: Planting it solidly on the ground was difficult, and the steps were soon slippery, making any slight degree of leaning while poking a broom and shovel at roof ice most unwise.

In the subzero cold and under a blazing sun, it was up and down, leaning over or looking up. I paused now and then to clear away snow underfoot.  When I rested, I wondered about the tracks in the snow I saw nearby, the only footprints in the pristine landscape. What animal had made them? Wild or domestic? Wandering about or in pursuit, maybe being pursued? No outdoorsman and not about to start being one, I've occasionally regretted my ignorance of the signs and messages nature generously strews about us outside our manmade confines.

The Lone Ranger and Tonto, of golden memory, in their element.
I was starting to get a bit light-headed, I'll admit. During one brief rest, I became conscious of two low male voices coming up behind me from the woods. I looked over my shoulder to see something that quickly had my mouth agape, drawing in frigid air: Two familiar-looking men on horses, but in a way I had never seen them, since my previous impression had been formed from small-screen black-and-white broadcasts more than 60 years ago. But I was indeed seeing the Lone Ranger riding Silver beside his "faithful Indian companion" Tonto, mounted on Scout.

They were looking down at the same footprints in the snow, trying to interpret them. I didn't think they'd seen me yet, so I set down the shovel and ducked behind a low yew hedge next to the south wall of my house. I wasn't ready for a meeting with two childhood heroes; it would be exciting enough just to observe them unnoticed.

No sooner had I got into my hiding-place than the Lone Ranger and Tonto dismounted, then squatted to examine the tracks closely.

"What  you figure, Kemo Sabe?" Tonto said.

"I don't know, Tonto," the Lone Ranger said levelly. "It could be a dog, or a deer, or...  I wonder if  the Butch Cavendish Gang had anything to do with this."

He was immaculately dressed as always, not seeming to need any extra layers of winter clothing.  Tonto likewise was clad in the neat fringed buffalo-hide garments he always wore on my favorite TV western series.

Tonto shook his head and sighed. "Kemo Sabe always worry about Butch Cavendish Gang. Heap big worry, all the time. Nobody else ever help us find them. Heap discouraging.  Anyway, Cavendish not likely roam snowy Indiana in January."

The Lone Ranger looked at Tonto thoughtfully. "I suppose you're right, Tonto. I guess I'm disappointed neither of us can read these tracks in the snow, and whenever we can't figure things out, I go back to thinking about Cavendish, and how much I'd like to put him out of business for good."

Both men were still squatting, but had stopped looking down at the snow. Their voices were oddly soothing as I listened, helping me ignore the stiffness I was feeling in my joints and the cold that was taking increasing advantage of my inactivity. Their voices were like a massage, though, providing surprising relief:  Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels.  There was nothing else quite like their quiet dialogue on the old TV show whenever they were analyzing a situation and planning their next move.

"We're out of our element, that's for sure," the Lone Ranger said calmly. "Usually you interpret nature for us, and I do the ratiocination from that. Neither seems to be working for us at the moment."

Tonto waited patiently through another long silence before speaking.  "Wondering something for many moons about Kemo Sabe," he said finally. "Good time to ask?"

"Sure, Tonto," said the Lone Ranger, looking squarely at his companion. "Ask away."

"Long time travel together,  do heap good for people together,"  Tonto began.  "Kemo Sabe never take break, no unwind.  Why no hell-raising,  no cowboy whangdoodle with other palefaces?  Kemo Sabe not see inside of saloon, maybe go upstairs with gaudy lady, no let-'er-rip from Kemo Sabe, ever — why not?"

The Lone Ranger took a long time before trying to answer. "I...  well, I can't.... this is difficult... for me, Tonto,"  he stammered. "I can't quite admit to... it might spoil my image for all people as a heroic man of action."

Tonto's eyes widened. "Kemo Sabe... gay?" he asked delicately.

I could see the Lone Ranger's eyes narrow suspiciously, despite the black mask. "Why are you changing the subject, Tonto? I thought you were bringing up something serious, and you see how awkward I'm feeling about it,  and yet you want to know if I'm blithe, happy, carefree!  Isn't it obvious I'm not gay, you dense redskin, freezing my butt off out here in the snow?"

I'd never heard either one of them raise his voice, and I was becoming disillusioned.  Tonto sharpened his tone, too.  "Forget gay question,"  he barked, rolling his eyes. "And don't call me redskin, Kemo Sabe! Heap insulting!"

The Lone Ranger quickly relaxed and his voice took on that clairvoyant tone I remember so well from when he would figure things out on the TV show.  "If you only knew that someday there will be a professional football team in our nation's capital called the Redskins, that might put things into perspective for you, Tonto.  And the owner, meaner than Butch Cavendish, would not budge even after thousands of people, including the  president of the United States, asked him to remove the insult and change the team's name."

Tonto looked amazed, as far as I could tell. "Great White Father object to insult, too?" he asked.

"Well, the Great Half-White Father, yes," the Lone Ranger replied.  "Fellow by the name of Barack Obama."

It was Tonto's turn to feel awkward, and he emitted a rare laugh. "Tonto think Kemo Sabe pull his leg," he said, trying to suppress an un-Indian guffaw. "Now, about whangdoodle question...."

The Lone Ranger shifted on his haunches.  Nearby, Silver and Scout were getting restless.  There was no grass for them to munch. Drinking the snow had lost its charm. Their flanks were twitching and they started tossing their heads impatiently.

"Tonto, you think I could go into a saloon dressed like this and sit down to a game of poker,  or belly up to the bar?,"  the masked man asked rhetorically.  "Do you know how easy it would be to get between a leering cowboy's mouth and a spittoon, and risk getting a powder-blue pantleg stained by a juicy plug of ejected tobacco?  I couldn't countenance that.  It's hard enough riding with you all over creation (but usually in better weather than this), looking for Butch Cavendish and his predatory confreres, without getting my clothes all dusty and nary a mark on my white hat.  The sartorial requirements of this job are endless, and I should think you of all people would understand the importance of keeping up appearances, Mr. Fringy Injun."

The two men appeared frozen in time.  Or maybe just frozen. The mutual anger vanished like the misty breath from the horses' nostrils.

"We sure are far afield, Tonto. Maybe that's why we're out of sorts," the Lone Ranger said dejectedly. "How did we end up in an Indianapolis neighborhood moseying through a foot of snow anyway?"

Now it was Tonto's turn to be clairvoyant. "We here because old man crouch near house behind bushes watching us," he said, "and we need to fulfill fantasy, Kemo Sabe."

The Lone Ranger looked over in my direction, then stood up, but didn't approach. He took Silver's reins and patted his faithful steed. "Well, then we've done our job, Tonto.  Let's get going."

"Heap good sense, Kemo Sabe," said Tonto.  "Don't forget leave silver bullet."

I couldn't see what happened in the next moment, but quickly both men were in their saddles, flicking the reins at their horses. They accelerated to a gallop  down my driveway and south on Tuxedo Street. It was not just the chill from the cold I felt when I stood up and heard "Hi-yo, Silver, away!" and watched Silver and Scout kick up tufts of snow from the hard-packed street surface.

But I was plenty stiff and sore, all right. Old man, indeed!  I suppose if Tonto said it, it was probably true.

At least I didn't have to ask, as the townspeople always did at the end of each "Lone Ranger" episode, "Who was that masked man?"  On the other hand, I couldn't say with any assurance, "He left behind this silver bullet."

And I couldn't hope to find it in all this snow, of course.  It was time to go back inside.

The yard will be a watery mess in a few days, sure enough. But you can bet I'll be back out there, searching the icy muck for something small and silvery.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Home Truths: An Agnostic Visits Heaven (a playlet for the snowbound, and others)

[Scene: From total darkness, a blinding flash of light (with thunderclap) reveals upstage center a man. He's dressed casually but conservatively in today's garb, standing astonished in the middle of a cozy living room in 1950s American style, blandly and comfortably appointed. Downstage on either side, angled, are a couch on which a middle-aged woman sits, knitting or reading a magazine, and on the other side, an easy chair, in which her husband reclines, smoking a pipe and casually reading a newspaper. They are dressed in the ordinary at-home fashion of the era. The bright light quickly subsides to normal illumination, as they look up at him with milder astonishment than his.]

Heaven, he's in heaven, and his heart beats so that he can hardly speak.
It's humble, but in our hero's view, Mr. and Mrs. God call it home.
Man:  God?

The Couple (together):  Yes?

Man (awkwardly):  I know this sounds presumptuous, but I was really hoping to see God.  That's why I'm here.

Mr. G.: You're speaking to us, son.  (Pause) We're God.  Welcome home!

Mrs. G.: And  to what do we owe the honor of this visit, young  man? We hear from you and your siblings down there on earth all the time, and that's a blessing, but here you are in the flesh.  What a treat!

Man:  Well, thanks, I guess. I'm not really an emissary of all humanity, at least not officially. But
I'm desperately worried about us, so I'm sort of self-appointed.

Mr. G: No need to apologize.  Any human being who's ever done anything out of the ordinary has been self-appointed. Don't worry about it.

Man (trying to relax):  So, anyway, you're God — both of you?

Mrs. G:  Of course. Divinity requires constant teamwork, you know. (Pause.) We've been doing this... well, forever, I guess. (Pause, then as if talking to a small, confused child.)  We're your parents.

Man (uncertainly):  Oh. Kay. I'm not sure I ever believed in you down there, and now this: a married couple living in the 1950s — middle-class Americans, probably Eisenhower Republicans — God! It's a lot to take in. (He finally starts moving a little, looking around.)  So this is what heaven really looks like?

Mrs. G (mistaking his wandering gaze for admiration):  Glad you like it.  We've got it just about the way we want it now. It suits us — now that you kids  have left home and are out on your own.

Man (slowly, ruefully):  Out on our own, are we?  Oh boy, let me tell you: That's why I wanted so badly to talk to you in person — and  I'm an agnostic!  Look: Things are getting way out of  hand down there.  I think humankind may be a little too much on its own.

Mrs G (putting aside her knitting): Believe me, we've heard all about it. Come sit down, son, and try to relax. (She motions to the other end of the couch, smiling warmly at him. The man sits down.) Oh, the prayers! Let me tell you, and from across the spectrum — even from atheists, though they never realize they're praying.

Man:  Then you know what a mess things are down there. Of course, how could you help knowing? So, where is God in all this, is what I'm wondering. A creation that ends up being like what we've got on earth now just doesn't make sense.

Mr. G (becoming increasingly indignant in the following speech): Really?  Are you sure?  Don't get me started, young man.  Your mother and I did our best for you and all your brothers and sisters. We gave you every advantage.  Oh, sure, we may have made mistakes, but I hope you didn't come up here just to find fault with us. That won't do at all!

Man (uneasily):  Oh, no. I suppose I'm grateful for all you've done — the sacrifices you've made. (Trying to think of an example.) You didn't compel us to worship you, or even believe in you, for that matter. That was a gift.

Mr. G:  You better believe it was, son.  We gave you free will.  It's always been up to you where you go with it.

Man:  Well, we're not going in any positive direction, on the whole, and the evidence for that  is growing exponentially: We're killing each other in so many different ways, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. And we're not doing the planet much good, either. I've brought along some of the evidence, right here (Shaking the papers in his hand and thrusting them forward.)

Mr. G: So you think we're not aware, eh? (With a twinkle, turning to Mrs. G). It looks like omniscience isn't what it used to be, darling, doesn't it?

Man: It never was. (Triumphantly) The first question you ever asked a man was when you said to Adam in the Garden of Eden: "Where art thou?" How's that for omniscience!

Mr. G (dismissively): It was an existential question. To give him something to think about. He and Eve had just tasted the fruit of the forbidden tree, remember.

Man (tired of the argument, his tone turns demanding): All right, whatever! But we need some intervention, and it's got to be decisive — and soon!

Mrs. G: My, my, my.  Such ordering around we're getting from our grown-up child!  Although we're used to it, frankly. Oh, some of those prayers! On and on, do this, do that, gimme, gimme, gimme! God help us!

Mr. G:  Your mother has introduced a salient point: Humans are grown up now. In the infancy and early childhood of your race, a certain flailing around was understandable.  Over time, though, it's not unreasonable to expect you to act like adults, is it? Or am I mistaken  here?

Man:  I see your point.  But when we were kids — at least according to some of our books — you were all over human existence: A revelation  here, a revelation there — miracles all around.

Mr. G:  I'm not going to say a word for or against what your religions take to be revealed truth. That's your affair. It's part  of your exercise of free will. It isn't guaranteed to come out well all the time.

Mrs. G:  And that's right there at the start of one of those entertaining sacred books you kids have made: The forbidden tree, it says, provided knowledge of good and evil, which also means it provided knowledge, period.  And the ability to get more knowledge, come what may.

Mr. G: And from that all the good and bad things have  come. Your Jewish siblings who gave you that story had it about right, though they went on to enlist us in all their bloody battles for a homeland.

Mrs. G: My word, was that ever exhausting for us! I remember. They seemed to think we would be joined at the hip with them forever.  On the other hand, it was an inspiring illusion.

Mr. G: And for their pains, they've gotten more than their share of grief from the rest of you.

Man (pointedly changing the subject):  So, what's the use of all these purported revelations, if they aren't really in loco parentis, as it were, if they really don't come from you?

Mr. G: ;The same as the point of all the science, the art, the technology — the free exercise of your curiosity, your knowledge and your capacity to reach your potential. Even human parents tend to endorse that in their kids, don't they?

Man:  Sure, but it's a little unfair of you to let go of us just because you've decided we're all grown up.  On earth alone, of all your creation, we're a fairly young species. I mean, look at the long run the dinosaurs had.

Mr. G:  Ah, yes, the dinosaurs.  They enjoyed millions of years of equilibrium in their environment.  And that's because they fulfilled their potential and prospered.  The human potential is so much greater than the dinosaurs', don't you agree. So, it may take longer. Keep working at it!

Man:  But my point is that we may destroy ourselves and the planet we live on well before we've accomplished what you have in mind for us.  (Pause.) And, by the way, what do you have in mind for us? You could let me know and I'd sure feel this visit was worthwhile.  I mean, our fate is foreordained, isn't it? So, give!

(Mr.and Mrs. G look at  each other, bemused.)

Mrs. G: Now, son, that wouldn't be quite fair, would it? For our children to have free will — created by us, let me point out; we didn't have to do it — and for us, Almighty God, to be locked in, with no flexibility?

Mr. G: We may want to change our mind, is what your mother is saying. And we have from time to time.  Running all of creation is a complex task, and we gotta keep our options open.

Man: But are  you running it?  It seems out of control to me, at least from my earthly perspective. (Growing irritated.) And you're content to sit around up here in your cheesy 1950s living room, looking like the perfect Kiwanis couple, and call yourself God in this Saturday Evening Post set-up heaven? (Loftily.) I would expect more inspiring choices from any deity worthy of my worship.

Mr. G: What a display — a little agnostic hissy-fit! When you calm down, you might take a moment to consider that what you're disdaining is your real idea of heaven, and that may be more important than whether or not this is in fact the real heaven,

Man:  That's a horrifying thought, actually.

Mrs. G (chuckling): But not bad for an agnostic, eh?

Man (sinking glumly into the couch):  So, what can I take back to earth?  That God is going to continue to let this mess play itself out, just because you're so proud of the free will you bestowed on your screwed-up kids?

Mr. G: And the intelligence to make the best possible use of it, remember. Plus, you've long had dominion over all the other creatures.

Mrs. G (smiling benignly): Except the microbes, of course.

Mr. G (not quite amused): Always they will have exceptions to deal with, dear.  (Loftily.) The exceptions, the things that don't quite fall into place, the choices to make — most of them trivial, some of them scary and  consequential.

Mrs. G:  As for what you can take back from this little tete-a-tete,  Mister...there won't be anything. Nada. Zilch.

Man: Oh, great. so now you're going to erase my memory of this edifying conversation. Just turn it upside down and shake it like an Etch-a-Sketch, huh?

Mrs. G (severely): We're not going to lift a finger, sonny.

Mr. G: She's right. We won't have to.  You've got too much to defend as an intelligent boy wanting the best for his human family.   You don't want to risk all that just to be taken for some delusional kook. There would go all your possible influence to make things better.

Mrs. G:  You kids are always so forgetful anyway. From this, you'll probably only have access to a renewed sense of appreciation for your freedom.  What could be better than that?

Man: Well, I guess I'll have to be satisfied with that.  It's not much in the way of reassurance, I have to say.  And if this place is really my idea of heaven, and you are my idea of God, I'm awfully disappointed in myself.  (He turns disconsolately to go.)

Mrs. G:  Take heart, son.  That's better than being disappointed in yourself — or in your Mom and Dad, who will always want the best for you. (She hugs him.)

Mr. G:  Give our best to the whole human family, will ya?  We'll always love them, though I'll admit they often won't be sure of that.  (He claps the Man on the shoulder.) But that's parents and kids for ya, right? (He hesitates, then hugs his son.) And keep in touch.

Mrs. G (sweetly): Just don't overdo it, honey, OK?

[Man exits toward the back of the stage, turns to look back quizzically, then leaves; Mr. and Mrs. G watch him go.]


Saturday, January 4, 2014

EclecticPound customizes the Bard, stripping 10 plays down for speed

ElecticPond Theatre Company, whose meat and drink is Shakespeare, is taking advantage of the long, cold slog into the New Year to serve up Bard-flavored truffles in "10x10: Shakespeare's Top Ten Plays, Ten Minutes Each."

Witches in 'The Scottish Play" get down with spookiness.
The company will run through this slap-happy revival just once more (Jan. 5 finale has been canceled because of the approaching snowstorm), using  an olio of contemporary speech (including asides and brief commentary) and original lines from the plays.  Nose-thumbing tributes are offered to "Othello," "Twelfth Night," "Julius Caesar," "Much Ado About Nothing, "Macbeth," "Henry V,"  "Richard III," "A Midsummer Night's Dream," "Romeo and Juliet" and "Hamlet."

Artistic director Thomas Cardwell has devised spoofs that either skim the plays or burrow within them only far enough to pick out the juicy bits. It is a superficial survey, in the best sense of the term. And it is mostly as funny as it tries to be.

In the thematic category is a "Richard III"  sketch with a confusion of doomed, resentful, hunchback, usurping kings — apparently inspired by a blend of the Monty Python sketch about a home to cure overacting (populated only by Richard IIIs) and Abbott and Costello's "Who's On First?" routine. In the spirit of "when Will gets silly, let him roll," "A Midsummer Night's Dream," is presented with an emphasis on the fledgling theatrical venture of Shakespeare's "rude mechanicals," relieved only by cameo turns as fairy royalty for the ETC artistic director and its managing director (Cat Cardwell). The plot skein involving the four lovers lost in the woods is worth only a few phlegmatic references.

The sketches require broad acquaintance with the covered plays only in some details. Familiarity will also help you keep pace with this large and energetic company's own frantic tempo. The confusion of identities in ETC's sketch of "Twelfth Night," for example, is best appreciated if you know the original's entanglements. Other than that, there are some droll digs at the plays' occasional lapses from common sense, such as Friar Laurence's daft plan for keeping Romeo and Juliet alive and safe.  (Spoiler alert: They end up neither.)

Some sketches hit hard at a few targets, turning the bull's-eye to pulp. "Macbeth" alludes consistently to the old theatrical superstition that it's bad luck to refer to the tragedy other than as "the Scottish play." Scottish burrs that were all thistle and oozing vowels dominated the Jan. 3 performance I atended, with particularly throaty gusto from Bill Wilkison in the title role. The play's intersection of raw ambition with the supernatural interference of ghosts and witches made for a rich source of fun.

In "Much Ado About Nothing,"  the battle of wits between Beatrice and Benedick becomes stylized as a WWF struggle of pokes, chops, knocks and sucker punches in the ring. Kate Homan and Jeremy Grimmer, who played the roles in the complete "MAAN" last season, gamely do battle once again here.

Sometimes the travesty yields a point of view that's worth considering about the play:  Is Cassius merely a sociopath who manipulates the circumspect Brutus in "Julius Caesar"?  This version tries that theory on for size, and it fits about as well as a loosely clasped toga must have in ancient Rome. And what about Hamlet, the "Cheese Danish," as he rantingly calls himself in the graveyard scene? Is he perhaps crazy from the get-go, in Shakespeare as well as in Cardwell?  Matt Anderson, cradling a skull in one arm like a fool's bauble as he lurches from scene to scene, certainly suggests that possibility.

The heartiness with which the ETC throws itself into this farrago of nonsense (plus a pinch of sense) is admirable. Not all Shakespeare lovers will be enchanted by "10x10," but perhaps they could use Duke Theseus' reminder to his Athenian court in the midst of the rude mechanicals' play — "the silliest stuff that ever I heard," as Hippolyta calls it.

"The best in this kind are but shadows," the King says, gently chiding his wife, "and the worst are no worse, if imagination amend them."  This production features some of "the best in this kind" around; all you have to do is bring your imagination to it, ready to amend.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Pacifica Quartet Shostakovich-centered series on Cedille comes to an exciting, thought-provoking conclusion

Four  double-CD volumes of "The Soviet Experience" performed by the Pacifica Quartet constitute one of the most impressive recorded statements by a top-flight American string quartet in recent memory. (The group was last heard in Indianapolis on May 11, 2011, in a concert presented by Ensemble Music Society.)
The Pacifica Quartet has concluded its striking "Soviet Experience" series.

Cedille Records, the estimable Chicago label focused on Chicago-area musicians, is remarkably resourceful in documenting their first-rate work and sharing it with the world. The company has once again added to its luster with the completion of this series.

Volume IV contains the last three works for string quartet by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), whose achievement in that medium was rivaled in the 20th century only by Bela Bartok's six and Arnold Schoenberg's four. With Quartet No. 3 by Alfred Schnittke (1919-1996) filling out the second disc, the opportunity is rich for assessing what Shostakovich achieved across a creative life shaped and sometimes endangered by Josef Stalin and his successors.

The string quartets offer more of an opportunity to appreciate Shostakovich than the symphonies or the operas. Despite their often distinguished music, those genres provide more fertile ground to examine Shostakovich's struggle for survival and creative freedom in a hostile political environment. With the chamber music, by and large, we can hear what Shostakovich was all about musically.  If the Russian government had been less repressive, or even if Shostakovich had become an expatriate, the string quartets seem to say that we would still be hearing the same composer.

Grounded in tonality but able to enfold challenges to its dominance, Shostakovich was also grounded in vernacular genres (marches and waltzes, chiefly) as aspects of his personal expression. His confident craftsmanship is always in evidence, certainly in these final quartets, with their formal individualism and wide expressive range. Quartet No. 13 in B-flat minor — in one long movement with a slow-fast-slow structure — opens with daringly thin textures as a 12-tone (but tonally directed) theme is outlined for nearly three minutes until the full quartet is heard.

Shostakovich seems to challenge ensemble unity almost as much as Elliott Carter: The inward-looking "Elegy: Adagio," which opens Quartet No. 15 in E-flat minor, features poised separate entrances, as if the four instruments were being kept at arm's length from one another.  The mood of isolation and solitude is thoroughly apt for such elegiac music. At the other end of the spectrum, the Pacifica manages to make of one of those skipping Shostakovich marches — in the first movement of Quartet No. 14 in F-sharp major — something both hard-digging and playful.

Comparison with the Schnittke,  with its abrupt episodes of or allusions to contrasting music, calls to mind a literary parallel — one  of T.S. Eliot's most famous pronouncements on the history of English poetry. In praising John Donne and his school in "The Metaphysical Poets,"  Eliot argued for recognition of a crucial change, "something that happened to the mind of England" in the 1600s.  He called it "a dissociation of sensibility... from which we have never recovered."  He meant, in explaining why by the time of Tennyson and Browning this dissociation was exerting its full force, to point up the difference between "the intellectual and the reflective poet."

"Tennyson and Browning are poets, and they think," Eliot wrote, "but they do not feel their thought as immediately as the odor of a rose. A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility."

I'd like to apply this idea to music, and suggest that it might be more useful to compare composers in a narrower microcosm than Eliot had in mind. Doing so avoids the fact that proving such a major historical shift in any art is more difficult to defend than explaining temperamental differences between creative artists with overlapping life spans in the same culture.

Schnittke, born in  the Soviet Union and seeing it dissolve only toward the end of his life, expresses a dissociation of sensibility in music that cannot help being disjunctive, internally at odds with itself.  Despite the fact that his String Quartet No. 3 strikes me as a coherent work, the composer's characteristic manner reflects a divide between emotion and thought. It's sometimes harshly expressed, though it still falls under Eliot's meaning of "reflective," insofar as second thoughts necessarily became second nature to artists who grew up under Stalinism.

Part of what makes Shostakovich a greater composer (even with only the evidence of this 2-CD package) is that his intellectual grasp of what he wanted to say in music and the emotions that helped generate it always seem unified.  His musical thought, initially formed before the Soviet tyranny solidified, always has the immediacy of sense experience, like the odor of a rose.

Why it "tells" so convincingly is that the way Shostakovich cast his experiences in musical terms is intellectually and emotionally indivisible. An intuitive apprehension of this unified sensibility by concert audiences around the world helps account for Shostakovich's enduring popularity. It certainly justifies the advocacy of the Pacifica Quartet, which is now in residence at Indiana University while it furthers a worldwise reputation of its own.

As its predecessors led music-lovers to expect, Volume IV has pristine sound, with a lively presence of all four instruments, yet nothing glaring or too "forward."  And there are many places in this repertoire where string sound is pushed to extremes, sometimes quite suddenly. Any off-kilter sound reproduction would conspicuously mar these performances.  The highest compliment that can be paid to them is that the Pacifica seems to be composing the music as it plays, from a place of deep engagement with whatever embattled muse visited both Shostakovich and Schnittke.