Saturday, March 29, 2014

Late sub for scheduled guest conductor shapes a stirring "Romeo and Juliet" concert by Indianapolis Symphony

When Michael Francis had to withdraw from this weekend's Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra concerts because of injury, Taiwanese-born Mei-Ann Chen stepped in. Distinguished from the start of her 25-year U.S. residency by having been the first musician to earn simultaneous master's degrees from New England Conservatory in violin and conducting, Chen has accumulated other honors since.

Chen displayed an acute rhythmic sense and interpretive exuberance in a program of Bernstein, Prokofiev and Delius Friday night.  The marketable theme is the imperishable story of Romeo and Juliet as set down by Shakespeare in the romantic tragedy of the playwright's early maturity.

ISO guest conductor Mei-Ann Chen
Two of the pieces attest to the play's adaptability to other circumstances besides the Montague-Capulet feud in Renaissance Verona. Young love against rustic social strictures in the opera "A Village Romeo and Juliet" lies behind Delius' "A Walk to the Paradise Garden." And conflict between rival youth gangs in 1950s New York City plays out tragically in "West Side Story," the Symphonic Dances of which fill out the first half of this weekend's program.

After intermission, we get back to direct inspiration from Shakespeare — despite the happy ending the composer originally wrote, then discarded under pressure. Sergei Prokofiev's music for a ballet version of "Romeo and Juliet" had a difficult gestation in that form, but three suites compiled from it have been favorably received in the concert hall for many years. And choreographers have ignored the initial resistance to the score as acceptable ballet music ever since. The ISO concerts take selections from all three suites.

Lousy with talent though he was, Prokofiev's ability to produce masterpieces was mixed. In the excerpts as played Friday, one marveled anew at the stunning representation of street fighting and personal disaster in "The Death of Tybalt." Friday's performance was breathtaking, and when applause greeted the episode's conclusion, Chen turned affably to the audience and advised: "Go ahead!"

On the other hand, one wants the lovers' leave-taking to be sublime, but there's little even a conductor as skilled as Chen can do to prevent "Romeo at Juliet's Before Parting" from overstaying its welcome. It's the only place in Prokofiev's musical narrative that one keenly misses Shakespeare's words.

The Balcony Scene was exquisitely balanced and played with ardor, and the gaudy, brash Minuet (qualities not usually associated with that dance form) had impressive heft and animation.

In the "West Side Story" Symphonic Dances, Chen's alertness to the score's overall rhythmic drive and its multiple subdivisions was unfailing. She displayed a wide spectrum of gestures, perhaps on the verge of overcueing, but for the most part precisely attentive to the music's essence. She was  just being scrupulous in all matters of detail, especially percussive. The orchestra responded idiomatically to her in music they've played often. The musicians responded to Chen's fresh ideas about the piece as well, especially in finding the lyrical heart beneath the Prelude's aggressive sonorities.

The program's curtain-raiser, Delius' pastel meditation on the doomed lovers in a village setting, featured a slew of tender wind solos, starting with the ISO's peerless oboe and going on to bassoon, English horn, clarinet, horn and flute. The tragedy's basic simplicity came through in the English composer's peculiarly warm handling of the orchestra, right up through the hushed ending.

Given the story's somber outcome, the most striking similarity of the three pieces is their quiet conclusions. Each of those individualistic approaches to the final double bar had magical resonance in Friday's stirring concert.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Indianapolis Opera steps back, cancels operatic search for a 'King of the May'

Benjamin Britten's delightful post-war comedy "Albert Herring" won't close the Indianapolis Opera 2013-14 season after all. The organization is taking a breather to establish a new "business model," a phrase more and more often heard in the arts world to indicate that an arts organization can be run like a business.

That required the axing of an opera about a small English town's frustration at finding a suitably pure May Queen at the turn of the 20th century for its annual spring celebration. A mild-mannered grocery clerk, the title character, saves the day (reluctantly) by being dragged into prominence as a precedent- setting "King of the May." Along the way, with some complications, he finds an inner strength and identity that had long been mother-smothered. "Albert Herring" was to have played at the company's soon-to-be-permanent home, Basile Opera Center, six times between April 25 and May 4.

IO general manager Carol Baker
General manager Carol Baker, interviewed Thursday morning, put the 39-year-old company's plight in national perspective: "Opera in the nation has been making big changes to stay relevant and vital. This is part of the ebb and flow. We are making the necessary changes to move the company forward, and will be remediating our business model."

She declined to be specific until the 2014-15 season is announced, but said, "It won't be a cookie-cutter season of three or four main-stage productions." Her assessment came a few days after the IO's sole large-scale production for the current season, Puccini's  La fanciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West), failed to sell more than half the seats for two performances in the 2,000-seat Clowes Hall.

The thrilling melodrama in Puccini's Wild West opera didn't excite the Indianapolis public enough to make completion of the current Indianapolis Opera schedule advisable.
Baker, who was hired as general manager last spring, demurred at criticizing the decision of the Indianapolis Opera board and previous administration to mount a four-production season this year. It started off strong at the box office with "The Threepenny Opera," she said. Then "Amahl and the Night Visitors," revived from last season, brought in less revenue than expected, even though a heartening 85 percent of the Gian Carlo Menotti Christmas opera audience was new to the company's productions, according to Baker.

"We moved forward with a four-show series knowing that we had a hill to climb," she said of 2013-14. She described the decision to cancel the final show as "ripping off the Band-Aid" and allowing the fiscal healing to take place. How that will take place remains to be publicly detailed.

The Great Recession of 2008 did not yield to a period of as much recovery as hoped. "We dipped into our rainy-day fund at that time," Baker said. Like most arts organizations,  Indianapolis Opera  found its endowment in steep decline. Individual and corporate support have also slumped, Baker said,  in recent seasons. Ticket sales decreased, and even major hits of the opera repertoire, like two other Puccini operas — Madama Butterfly and La Boheme — could no longer be counted upon to sell out as they did only a decade or so ago.

"With changing times, I've heard that movie ticket sales are also down," Baker said by way of explanation. "People are staying inside. It's part of the loss of civic participation that the arts have been all too familiar with over the past five to 10 years."

Baker scotched a rumor that major donors had put pressure to have all Indianapolis Opera productions in the Basile Opera Center, sparing the large marketing and production expense of Clowes Hall shows. The Butler venue will continue to be part of the company's schedule, she said.

The Opera Center, a converted church in Meridian-Kessler, has been used as the company's first dedicated rehearsal space ever for the past several years. The last few seasons have seen its adaptation for small-scale productions as well, including everything this season except "The Girl of the Golden West". The company's offices, now at 38th Street and Washington Boulevard, are scheduled to move to the BOC April 17 and 18.

"Opera is not business as usual," Baker summed up. "It has to be more than that. It has to be connected to people where they live."

 That may offer a hint as to how Indianapolis Opera hopes to stay viable in the near future.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Music@Menlo issues handsome 8-CD set making its 2013 season widely available

IVCI bronze medalist Benjamin Beilman
"If you build it, they will come" can be adapted to music festivals as well (if they are run well). And if you record it, many who couldn't come will be able to share the experience of those who did.

An estimable chamber-music series in the attractive setting of the Menlo School in the Bay Area community of Atherton, Calif., can boast an unusually polished way for music-lovers everywhere to access what happens at the annual festival.

Music@Menlo LIVE's "From Bach," its title indicating the foundation of chamber-music repertoire today in the German master's works, consists of eight CDs. All of but two of them open with music by J.S. Bach and fan out from there to a broad range of standard repertory up through Bartok, Britten, and Shostakovich.

For the Bach selections, and given the focus of the invited artists, modern instruments are the rule, of course, which will disturb some devotees of authentic-instruments performance. Nowadays, everyone has learned from early-music orthodoxy. So when you listen to such a piece as the Concerto for Violin and Oboe in C minor, you hear a regular push and snap to the rhythms and a chasteness with respect to vibrato and dynamics that make the learned style successful.

That's in a performance on Volume 3, with soloists Kristin Lee (violin) and James Austin Smith (oboe) accompanied by a six-piece ensemble. It's typical of the excellence of the set.

Most of the players are not widely known, with the exceptions of the couple who direct the festival, pianist Wu Han and cellist David Finckel, and veteran pianist Gilbert Kalish, whose triumphant interpretations in the series include the same CD's Mozart Piano Concerto No. 12 in A major. Others are esteemed mostly within the music community.

The Mozart concerto works well with the minimal accompaniment of string quintet; Kalish's feeling for the solo part has the right amount of charm and more than enough facility and tonal balance. One name that will stand out more than usual to Indianapolis music-lovers is that of violinist Benjamin Beilman, who won the bronze medal in the 2010 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis.  Again focusing on Volume 3, he is soloist (along with Wu Han) in Mendelssohn's youthful, exuberantly prolix Double Concerto in D minor for Piano and Violin.

Other highlights for me:

  • The Danish String Quartet's performances of two Joseph Haydn quartets — Quartet in F minor, op. 20, no. 5, and the "Quinten" (D minor, op. 76, no. 2) — as well as its illuminating collaboration with Kalish in Shostakovich's Piano Quintet in G minor, op. 57. The fourth-movement Intermezzo manages to be sweet and stark at the same time; its well-sustained delicate mood shades into something more urgent, as so often in Shostakovich.
  • More Bach:  The 10-player Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, with Wu Han at the harpsichord, displays pinpoint coordination among the three string groups (violins, violas, cellos) that in the outer movements resembles a time-trial for putting together a jigsaw puzzle.
  •  The almost raw but ultimately winning interpretation of Bartok's Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion by Kalish and Wu Han at the keyboards and Christopher Froh and Ian Rosenbaum handling the percussion.
The recorded sound is bright and forward. It is only glaring once — in Gilles Vonsattel's performance of Shostakovich's Prelude and Fugue No. 4 in E minor.

Another marvelous thing about this release is that the performances are distraction-free, like studio recordings. There's no program-rustling or coughing from the audience (which must be among the most self-restrained anywhere), and the enthusiastic applause that surely followed most of these performances has been crisply excised by the engineers.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Artemis Quartet takes the full measure of Brahms — and the wispy Trauermusik of Gyorgy Kurtag

Ensemble Music Society presented  the Artemis Quartet
You wouldn't think a string quartet's instrument position being a couple of feet higher than normal would make that much difference. But among the excellence o report about the Artemis Quartet's Ensemble Music Society concert Wednesday is the acoustically relevant detail that it plays standing up (except for cellist Eckart Runge, perched on a wooden box).

That peculiarity did wonders for the resonance and projection of the music, giving a heightened dimension to  the Indiana History Center's Basile Theater's already satisfying acoustics. And who knows how healthy it is for the two violinists and the violist to stand up to play, what a boon it is to proper breathing? Teachers emphasize it for individual practice. It's a little odd it isn't more common on the concert platform.

Based in Berlin, the Artemis was founded in 1989. Runge, who also served as ensemble spokesman, is the sole remaining original member. His colleagues in the current quartet are Vineta Sareika and Gregor Sigl, violins, and Friedemann Weigle, viola.

Most of the program was devoted to Johannes Brahms. The Artemis' way with the composer was unusually subtle in its color, quite flexible in rhythms and tempo, and overall seductive in mood. The interpretations of both the Quartet in B-flat, op. 67 and the Quartet in C minor, op. 51, no. 1, were internally consistent, and rarely seemed to be straining for effect.

In the B-flat quartet, which opened the program, the Artemis explored the full spectrum of its understanding of Brahms to illuminate the gentle Vivace first movement. It became evident in the course of the performance how precisely the Artemis balanced the harmonies and how much "air" they let into Brahms' sometimes dense textures. The phrasing, particularly in the third movement, was so well-synchronized as to produce the illusion of one instrument divided four ways. Violist Weigle evinced a lush tone in his extensive second-and third-movement solos. The playfulness of the theme-and-variations finale was brought out expertly.

Occupying the concert's second half, the Op. 51 quartet shot out of the gate in full C-minor earnestness, destined to return vigorously in the finale. In between, the Artemis focused on the winsomeness of Brahms — not often thought one of his most conspicuous aspects — and in the third movement may have advocated at the edge of cuteness. This was certainly a more (dare we say) flirtatious Brahms than we're used to. And it was undoubtedly refreshing.

Gyorgy Kurtag's Quartet, op. 28 ("Officium breve in memoriam Andreae Szervansky") came in between. Its succession of very short movements, in an idiom inspired by Anton Webern, never failed to captivate across the deliberately somber mood. The quartet's dynamic range had particular variety toward the softer end, with hair's-breadth pianissimos that never fell apart — thanks in part to the extra resonance imparted by the quartet's elevated stature onstage. As cellist Runge remarked beforehand, the language may be post-Webern, but the music's expressivity is rooted in Romanticism.

Tumultuously received after the second Brahms quartet, the Artemis Quartet offered an unusually expansive encore: the slow movement from Mendelssohn's op. 13 in A minor. As with everything else the ensemble played, scrupulously prepared music-making didn't ever inhibit delivering an emotional charge that seemed very much in the moment.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Jon Robin Baitz's "Other Desert Cities" at IRT probes rich, fragile Southern California family

Translation is betrayal, runs an old Italian saying, the idea being that even smart, benign attempts to preserve integrity from one language to another are doomed.

Will Mobley, Anne Allgood, Lawrence Pressman, and Paige Lindsey White in IRT's "Other Desert Cities."
A family's painfully lived experience is like an original language, too. Events coalesce around idiomatic ways of doing things and relating to one another. How much greater a betrayal can underlie the translation of such experience into written, then published, form!

In "Other Desert Cities," that's what faces the Wyeth family of Palm Springs, with its Hollywood pedigree and glitzy social connections set against the long-ago disappearance of a brother and son who descended into a haze of drugs and jerrybuilt ideological fervor, then was implicated in an ugly crime.

Something is truly about to be lost in translation as daughter Brooke, visiting on Christmas Eve from the East Coast, confronts the family with her new work, a dreaded interpretation and recounting of what happened to her older brother Henry.

Her good reputation as a writer — one well-received novel, lots of high-impact feature journalism — has erected a fragile self-confidence upon her struggles with mental illness. Her medicated depression is rooted in unresolved grieving for Henry, whom she idolized. The memoir is self-therapy, and the family's prominence is likely to ensure the book's success in the marketplace. The unavoidable question Indiana Repertory Theatre's production raises: What will become of the family as a result?

Paige Lindsey White gave a riveting portrayal of Brooke in Tuesday night's performance, in which all five actors distinguished themselves with their mastery of Jon Robin Baitz's brutally exhausting script. Even the wisecracks and comic insights concentrated in the first act displayed an intense conversational flow. Under the direction of James Still, the cast didn't overplay the laughs. The serious business unfolding from the very first, with its banter comparing East Coast and West Coast climates, was kept in view.

The audience quickly becomes acquainted with the troubled household: The superficially complacent, bigoted mother Polly Wyeth, whose Hollywood career was highlighted by a silly series of light comedies co-written with her sister, Silda, now a recovering alcoholic; Lyman Wyeth, a smooth leading-man retiree, apparently rock-solid in how he chooses to present himself in the world; kid brother Trip, a TV producer who had been mercifully spared much of the family's anguish but is caught up in it now, thanks to Brooke's literary time bomb.

Director James Still not only has his cast unerringly get to the heart of these characters, but he also moves them fluidly in and about Ann Sheffield's stunning set, with its polished interior detail and large-scale, thrusting geometric forms. The Wyeths' living room captures the multimillion-dollar panache of Southern California real estate in Palm Springs and perhaps, as the freeway sign says, other desert cities.

These are restless characters, particularly as provoked by Brooke's plans to shine a light on their greatest crisis, and they need to move the way they do. Some of what could be the burden of the play's excessive talkiness is thereby relieved. Baitz makes every line tell, but "Other Desert Cities" treads the dangerous territory long ago staked out by Eugene O'Neill: Characters turn themselves inside out responding to each other. Their interaction is taken to the point of being an emotional purgative, and you may start to wonder if they have any interior life left after being so emptied.

Riding high on that risk, you could love the complexity Anne Allgood brought to Polly, investing so much in the family but in a perilously controlling way. Or the nobility, restraint and tender good humor of Lawrence Pressman as Lyman. Robin Moseley gave stature to the sloppy and endearing  Silda, a sort of Dorothy Parker type, with less of an honest relationship to Brooke than she pretends. And Will Mobley, whose role often called for him to react for long moments in between his passionate speeches, was sympathetic as show-biz careerist Trip, embodying the ironic truth that when you entertain people for a living, you have to fight to stay happy.

"Traduttore, traditore," say the Italians, getting a word play out of that home truth which, as if to demonstrate the maxim, gets lost in translation. In "Other Desert Cities," the betrayal is barely skirted, but only because there were resources in the original text only Polly and Lyman could access. Their revelation is stunning, yet fully in keeping with the relentless pace of fresh knowledge about these people that this production so skillfully provides.

(Photo credit: Zach Rosing)

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Richard Ratliff combines programming and performing deftness in UIndy piano recital

In more than 20 years of attending University of Indianapolis concerts featuring professor of piano Richard Ratliff, I've found it's a given that the programs will be interesting, well-balanced and varied.

As usual, Richard Ratliff held the interest.
The tradition continued Monday night with his solo recital at DeHaan Fine Arts Center titled "From Bach to Berners," the alliterative allure of which only hints at the range he covered. For one thing, "Bach" designated not Johann Sebastian, but his most distinguished, if eccentric, composing son, Carl Philipp Emanuel.  In the middle of Ratliff's opening set came C.P.E. Bach's Rondo in C minor, a work full of wit and surprises.

The recitalist seemed fully sympathetic to the quirkiness of this music, highlighting it by his pervasively staccato and leggiero handling of the theme. The daring separation of the piece's phrases gave it both a tentative feeling and a bravura mood. Ratliff seemed comfortable with that ambivalence, as if anything could happen and the composer expected the listener to be OK with it. In Ratliff's hands, we were. The abrupt stage whisper of a phrase with which the Rondo ends was brought off with a seasoned actor's nonchalance.

More settled pieces of an almost studious mien lay on either side of the Bach.  Opening the recital, Kodaly's "Meditation sur un motif de Claude Debussy" put the dour material the title alludes to in a low register. The motif gradually got lighter treatment, and the harmonies paid tribute to the French composer as well. Ratliff's way with the decorative figures accompanying the theme approximated the Debussyan ideal of a "piano without hammers."

Ratliff's engaging oral program note from the stage put Aaron Copland's "Night Thoughts (Homage to Ives)" in context. He indicated his desire to update his interpretation of the commissioned piece that he and 37 other participants in the 1973 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition were required to play. It was evident Ratliff wanted to take some of the barbed quality out of the piece to emphasize its haunting loneliness, perhaps making a gesture to such a nocturnal charmer as Copland's "Quiet City." And that new vision of the piece paid off in Ratliff's performance.

The pianist-professor was similarly insightful and concise in talking about Beethoven's Sonata in D major, op. 10, no. 3, the program's centerpiece. The logic of his full performance matched that of his explanation, with clarity joining it after a slightly woolly first movement. Considering the individual character of each movement, a cohesive interpretation seems no easy accomplishment. His patient traversal of the  "Largo e mesto" was particularly moving. After the sunny minuet, Ratliff didn't shy away from or gloss over the witty, pause-punctuated short phrases that make the finale so idiosyncratic.

The program contained a new work, "Star Harp Tender" by Ratliff's UIndy colleague John Berners. It's a delicately evolving piece with unsentimental reference to starry skies and the linking of their components into constellations made by our ancestors. The score's spacious placement of notes in the treble range is soon undergirded by sparse countermelodies and a bit of harmony. All of this is rigorously understated, allowing for a mood of meditation to overcome any anxiety as to what it all adds up to. The atmosphere, conjured up wonderfully in this performance,  recalls some of the work of George Crumb and Morton Feldman.

Finishing with three Chopin waltzes was a typically deft Ratliffian touch (not counting the St. Patrick's Day encore, Carter Pann's flavorful arrangement of "Danny Boy").  The Waltz in E minor, op. posthumous, seemed somewhat undercharacterized, a little too soft-spoken, even guarded.  But that tender, nuanced approach, wedded to suppleness of rhythm throughout, served well the waltzes in A-flat major, op. 34, no. 1, and C-sharp minor, op. 64, No. 2.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Philadelphia's Koresh Dance Company brings its sparkle, sass and tension to the Tarkington

Ronen Koresh is fond of alluding to the side-by-side mixture of cultural influences that characterize life in his native Israel, which explains why his choreographic signature never follows one stylistic track for long. The result manages to be an unambiguous personal style whose rapidly changing components achieve remarkable cohesiveness.

His Koresh Dance Company concluded a two-night stand Saturday at the Tarkington at the Center for the Performing Arts with a program of short pieces that eventually attained some breadth with "Bolero," which concluded the performance.

Ravel's famous score, full of dance predecessors going back to its premiere in 1928, becomes in Koresh's hands something both playful and driven — but not driven by sensuality or even a hint of seductiveness.

Instead, Koresh's troupe of ten dancers emerges in small groups from darkness at the back and sides of the stage, heralding each musical transition. There's always the element of surprise in where and how many they will be for each variation of "Bolero"'s two-part tune. Just as the composer garbs it in a series of fresh outfits orchestrally, Koresh takes pains to have the music keep coming at us anew in visual and kinesthetic terms.

By the time the work was presented Saturday, his angular vocabulary had become familiar to the  likely first-timers in the audience. What was particularly emphasized in the Koresh "Bolero" was a faux-instinctive response to the music and its incessant rhythms, something we might see in children: mock-conducting, marching, twisting, whirling and thrusting in sharp response to the "beat".

It looked somewhat like the joy of free play, undercut by the seriousness children are capable of. There's is a seriousness without solemnity: the kind of intense fun that has kids going as high on swings as they can or rolling downhill, then trying to walk right away. The work comes very close to the feeling that has made "Bolero" so enduring in the concert hall. It's not for nothing that Koresh prefaces "Bolero" with the red-light lassitude of "La Vie en Rose," as if to salute the world-weariness that he is about to discard with Ravel's help.

The first half was unified through a series of segues between dances. It began with full-company works, then moved into a series of duets, several of them comic. The essentials of comedy in Koresh dance were evident from the start, even when they weren't explicit. The prevalence of shoulder shrugs, windmilling or pumping arm motions, stylistic touches of disco, folk dance and marching — the very miscellaneousness of it all opens doors to opposite directions that Koresh passes through wholeheartedly.

One of them is toward fun, such as the double takes and the clinging, dragging and buffeting of the couple in "Kiss." The other polarity is where solemnity comes in — the search for collective meaning, the interaction of anguished solos and duets set against group response. That quest has the troupe looking anxiously, expectantly upward and offstage at the end of "Wet Stones Full of Light," which concluded the first half.

Something transformational may well come from beyond, but it is shaped by vigorous communication in the here and now, proved on the pulses of a community. And that probing exchange of meaning, sharply and unsentimentally defined, seems to be what Koresh dance is all about.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Pat Metheny spreads his guitar charm at the Palladium with the help of his new, expanded band

Prolific as he's been in the recording studio and active as a touring artist, Pat Metheny apparently applies such stamina to individual shows as well — if his appearance fronting his Unity Group Friday at the Palladium is any indication.

Chris Potter (from left), Antonio Sanchez, Pat Metheny and Ben Williams are the Unity Band.
He came on alone just after 8 to play a long introspective solo on a mutant guitar with strings set at various positions in addition to the normal one along the instrument's neck. Soon joined by his sidemen, Metheny kept churning out music on several guitars for over two hours without a break.

He looked as smilingly relaxed at the end as he had at the beginning. It's not far-fetched to suppose that the Missouri native, who will turn 60 in August, still loves music. When a performer conveys that love to an audience so generously, it's no wonder that his career has such staying power.

Reportedly nearly all 1,200 seats made available for the concert were sold. As Metheny acknowledged from the stage, the engagement marked his first appearance in Indiana in many years.

So he was even more inclined to share his transition from the Unity Band — a quartet featuring reedman Chris Potter, bassist Ben Williams and drummer Antonio Sanchez — to the Unity Group. The quintet adds Giulio Carmassi, contributing wordless vocals and keyboard command of an electronic orchestra. "On this tour we're our own opening band," the bandleader told the crowd as he turned toward tracks from his new Unity Group CD. "Kin," after a lively first hour devoted to its 2012 self-titled Unity Band predecessor.

The Unity Group material allows for more indulgence in the "atmospheric" side of Metheny's music. Celesta sounds and supplementary percussion effects were woven into a seductive mixture in the show's second half; it all sounded great in the Palladium's spacious acoustics.

The new songs display that penchant for controlled rhythmic turbulence and airy melodies that have put the guitarist at the edge of the smooth-jazz genre at various points in his career. This flirtation, and the occasional jibes of jazz critics as a result, made all the more sensational his rant against Kenny G over a decade ago that the guitarist is now said to regret. And few fans would ever place Metheny, even at his furthest excursions from jazz, within clutching distance of the saxophonist's bag of a few anodyne tricks.

The real problem? The guitarist's incredible chops and love of every sonic texture the guitar (with technological help) can command are seldom reined in, as sometimes they should be. Abundance is too important to Metheny's muse. There's got to be stylistic amplitude, and that sets him apart, but in ways that may lose some listeners from moment to moment. Thus, he's far from being the grooviest guitarist going — even though he is capable of bluesy righteousness, a quality richly seconded by Potter and Williams in Friday's concert.

Those sidemen, plus Sanchez, also share Metheny's skill at laying out a rapid profusion of ideas. Right at the point you might have thought everyone was getting tired, Metheny started a parade of his colleagues in a duo format, from Williams to Potter to Carmassi to Sanchez. No one seemed to wilt in the slightest. For its contrapuntal intensity, the partnership with Potter struck particular gold with me.

Speaking of gold, the best way to take in so much Metheny may be to look for the shining nuggets as you let the sweep of the music overtake you. This may sound far-fetched, but he's a romantic with a vast reach, and that makes the musical payoff occasionally vague, even gaseous. He's the Percy Bysshe Shelley of jazz guitarists, Shelley being the older contemporary of the more grounded John Keats, who advised his fellow poet in a letter: "You might curb your magnanimity and be more of an artist, and 'load every rift' of your subject with ore."

Insightful advice, but not such that Shelley could ever accept and remain himself. Similarly with Metheny: His music takes flight, and you might lose sight of it, or crane your neck sorely trying to follow it, but there is something admirable and cherishable in all those notes.

It's fortunate for Metheny that music is an abstract art, so that it's not so obvious as with a poet where the magnanimity might be curbed. And it remained happily uncurbed Friday night at the Palladium.

Friday, March 14, 2014

In Phoenix Theatre production, two teenagers — strangers to each other — grapple with a school assignment and their strange connectedness

Working together on a school project rarely involves such obstacles as those Lauren Gunderson sets up for two high-school students in "I and You," a play making the rounds of three theaters across the country under the auspices of the National New Play Network.
Anthony (Eli Curry) and Caroline (Katherine Shelton) collaborate in "I and You"

Phoenix Theatre's production opened Thursday night on the Basile Stage, a perfect space for the necessarily small audience to look in on the thoroughly lived-in bedroom of Caroline, forced by a potentially fatal disease to stay away from school for months at a time. It's a strictly controlled world, and just how hemmed in it is we don't really discover until the surprise ending.

Trying to keep victimhood at arm's length, Caroline reacts angrily to the sudden intrusion of Anthony, a popular classmate who has mysteriously chosen her as partner for a literature project. It's a study of the use of pronouns in the poem Walt Whitman came to call  "Song of Myself."

"I and the mystery here we stand," Anthony quotes by way of introduction as he appears in Caroline's doorway. He knows his "Song of Myself" all right, and his choice of quote is a faint clue as to who he turns out to be.  On the surface, he's a bright, well-liked student-athlete, humbly seeking a working partnership with a shut-in classmate to put a little pizazz into the assignment. His poster needs to make a better impression than the one he's started, and he needs videos of him and Caroline speaking on the topic. But first, he has to motivate the sick girl.

In Katherine Shelton's performance, Caroline is animatedly turned-off and truculent about nearly everything. Linked to the outside world through social media, she's got a few odd favorites among the possessions in her bedroom. It's a cheerfully decorated place designed to hide its clandestine function as a way station en route to her presumptively premature death.

"And as to you death, and you bitter hug of mortality ... it is idle to try to alarm me" are "Song of Myself" words that Gunderson chooses not to quote, but they could well be a badge of Caroline's fragile bravado. You could mine "Song of Myself" pretty thoroughly for words that speak to the situation of youth finding its identity, displaying its sense of wonder, and confronting life's most extreme challenge prematurely.

The playwright deserves credit for articulating the adolescent mind-set and the verbal formulas with which today's teens analyze the world — apparently "weird" is a description they apply in bafflement to a broad range of behavior. This cast is fully invested in the emotions and defense mechanisms that work best for their charming, overwrought or merely confused characters. As Anthony, Eli Curry is particularly adept at conveying these qualities.

Martha Jacobs directs the show.  I liked the energy she elicits from Curry and Shelton, but there were places I wished she had countered the playwright's love of debate with a greater variety of pacing. One of the responsibilities of directors of new plays, it seems to me, is to resist playwrights' tendency to become befogged in their own heads of steam.  Gunderson is too fond of having her characters run in an argumentative rut, especially in the first scene. The actors could say the same words and convey the same verbal push-comes-to-shove with a less relentless rhythm.

Also, for a playwright with such a conspicuous cultural peg to hang a play on, Gunderson ought to have been more familiar with the chronology of "Leaves of Grass" and its chief poem, "Song of Myself." Maybe Anthony is supposed to be misinformed — though I don't know what purpose that would serve — when he says that Whitman wrote "Song of Myself" during the Civil War.

In fact, the poet launched his career with "Leaves of Grass" (12 untitled poems, one of them later called "Song of Myself," and a prose preface) in 1855. Two more editions were published before the war's outbreak, followed by a fourth edition in 1867. During the four-year conflict, Whitman busied himself as a devoted visitor to military hospitals while holding down a clerk's job with the Army Paymaster. Those experiences bore poetic fruit that was harvested in further editions of "Leaves of Grass," culminating in the definitive "deathbed" edition of 1891.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Ripple FX wants to widen the 'FX' of musical fellowship all around town

Kenny Phelps believes more needs to be done to promote musical cross-pollination here.
As a business,  rippleFX: Studios in Broad Ripple focuses on music for advertising, but on March 10 its promotional emphasis was wider-reaching and more idealistic. The idea? Throw a party and jam session and thereby get the sometimes balkanized Indianapolis music scene to form both social and artistic bonds.

So early Monday evening, musicians of all ages and various genres poured through the doors of the sprawling two-story building, roomier inside than it looks from Ferguson Street.

Hank Hankerson (sax) and Nick Tucker (bass) at Monday's session.
"We should talk to each other," said drummer and studio co-owner Kenny Phelps, briefly interrupting the music-making. "It starts with us coming together. This is a group of like-minded people. We want it to be something (in these sessions) that can bring musicians and club owners in."

The marketability of a wide span of genres in local music — gospel, funk, rap, blues, pop, jazz, and so on — is what Phelps and his business partner, studio founder Bill Mallers, have in mind.

So there was lots to listen to in spontaneous music-making ranging from high-school musicians all the way up to such veterans as Hank Hankerson, saxophonist and longtime jazz educator. The participation of underage musicians is especially important to Phelps since there aren't opportunities for them to jam with professionals in places where liquor is served.

The result of the ongoing program is hard to predict, but to learn more, Phelps made available a one-page questionnaire (along with a hot supper to encourage participation) to the attending musicians. In addition to naming the sessions,  the survey is designed to receive information on what the musicians believe can be accomplished by these sessions, ideas as to their best format, and — not as routine a matter as it might seem — how often Phelps and Mallers should schedule them.

The popularity of Monday's event suggested to Phelps that a larger "neutral" site — not a nightclub or a church, for instance — be found for future get-togethers.  That would swerve around what Phelps is at particular pains to avoid: the notion that such-and-such a place is somebody else's turf and thus "not for me." Instead, broad networking with no idea of abandoning where a musician is coming from should be the focus, he indicated. As a much-admired drummer in various genres, Phelps himself is poised to mastermind such an outreach.

Far ahead would be new recordings on the Owl Studios label, which Mallers and Phelps acquired in 2012 from founder J. Allan Hall. But there's a lot of spadework and careful nurture to undertake before these jam sessions bear such fruit.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Three Russian warhorses get a good ride from Krzysztof Urbanski and the ISO

The ISO's guest solo artist, Anna Vinnitskaya
The predictable enthusiasm that the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra roused in the course of its concert Friday got a built-in boost from the presence of Honor Orchestra of America members and their parents in the audience.

So the Hilbert Circle Theatre rafters rang with a good measure of youthful cheering after performances of Mussorgsky's "Night on Bald Mountain," Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, and Stravinsky's 1945 Firebird Suite.

The Honor Orchestra, a national youth ensemble with headquarters in Indianapolis, had played a short program of works by Glinka and Shostakovich beforehand, making for a lengthy all-Russian evening.

The ISO's regular subscription concert opened with the Mussorgsky tone poem, evoking a folk superstition that a witches' sabbath was observed every St. John's Eve (June 23) on a mountain near Kiev, a city that is more in today's consciousness than normal, and not for supernatural revelry.

Execution adhered to a high level from the start, with tense, even string tremolos establishing the atmosphere. By the time their whirring energy introduced the thundering low-brass theme, the excitement was thoroughly engaged. The clarity that music director Krzysztof Urbanski drew from the orchestra emphasized Rimsky-Korsakov's colorful orchestration.  Suddenly it became evident in the well-worn score what a common thread runs straight from this chestnut through the "Firebird" music, written by Rimsky-Korsakov's prize pupil.

After the diabolical mountaintop partying dissipates with the arrival of dawn, the subsiding music that concludes "Night on Bald Mountain" was slightly marred Friday night: The solo flute was flat in its unison with the tolling chime, though its higher-register solo later, following a beautifully rendered clarinet solo, seemed on pitch.

The Rachmaninoff, one of the most popular of concerted works for solo piano and orchestra, enjoyed the benefit of Anna Vinnitskaya's galvanic playing in a brilliantly collaborative reading. The piece has loads of charm, but some interpretations take this as a cue to emphasize facility and a blithe spirit. Yet the music also sojourns through authentic darkness, beginning but not ending with its signature employment of the "Dies irae" chant.

Vinnitskaya conveyed the idea that serious matters such as the fate of human souls are under discussion here. She was blithe enough when that was called for, but her lightness of touch was set against all the glowering contrasts it needed. Called back for an encore, the soloist offered a transcription of a Bach organ prelude.

The 1945 "Firebird" suite uses "pantomime" episodes from the full ballet score that flesh out a Russian folk myth: A magical bird visits a prince and bestows on him a feather that turns out to have immense evil-battling powers. There was a patience and breadth to the early part of the ballet that helped us hear the story with fresh ears.

With theatrical economy, Urbanski signaled the sudden thump and blare of the monster Kastchei's "Infernal Dance" with the tiniest of gestures. As in the ballet, we were meant to feel dark forces descend upon the garden idyll all at once. It sure worked Friday: Concertgoers visibly shuddered and jumped in their seats.

There are hardly adequate words to describe how the ISO poured out the balm spread by the Firebird as Kastchei and his minions fall asleep, allowing the prince to capture the bad king's soul. The tremolos leading into the final wedding celebration of the prince and his intended were magical, and the swelling of that theme became overpowering by the time the cadence of the seven most memorable chords in 20th-century music concluded the concert.

This weekend's program gets a more thorough workout before the public than usual. In addition to an abbreviated (no Mussorgsky) performance at Thursday morning's Coffee Concert, there were full-length presentations here Friday and Saturday, plus a free repeat Sunday afternoon at Indiana University in Bloomington. That such a program automatically attracts people in droves is especially to be celebrated when the performance standard is so high and individualized.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Dance Kaleidoscope gets some momentum on country roads

In the spirit of the inspiration with a popular music genre that made "Super Soul" such a success a few seasons ago, Dance Kaleidoscope is turning to Nashville this weekend for "Kings & Queens of Country."

Dancers in "Ring of Fire" segment of "Heart's Desire." (Crowe's Eye Photography)
The show, seen in a preview performance Thursday night at Indiana Repertory Theatre, is certain to make new friends for the contemporary-dance troupe among country fans who may be uneasy about the art of dance in general. The program consists of two appealing world premieres, opening with "Heart's Desire," choreographed by frequent DK guest Cynthia Pratt, and concluding with David Hochoy's "Deep in the Heart of Country."

The heart-healthy titles signal the importance of love's joys and trials in country music. They also seem to convey a recognition that, even when layered with sophisticated production, the genre speaks directly to the emotions. The new works thus have fertile ground to till, both in the obviously catchy rhythmic area and in giving free rein to the genre's open-heartedness. It's a broad canvas for a choreographer to paint upon.

Set off by Laura Glover's sensitive lighting, Guy Clark's costumes suit the nature of each piece. Pratt's work calls for jeans (cutoffs for the women) and checkered shirts; it makes more of the collective spirit of country music, with the look of casual playfulness lending a down-to-earth quality. The serious themes, often entrusted to DK members in twos and threes, always had a Grand Ole Opry sweep to them. Taking in as much emotional terrain as the song allowed was how her settings proceeded.

Three-way dramas of jealousy and rejection were played out to "Jolene,"as Caitlin Negron and Emily Dyson grasped, clung to and were dragged by a striding, resistant Justin David Sears-Watson. The scooting and flirting of "Little Yellow Blanket" had Aleksa Lukasiewicz and Noah Trulock romping nonstop. But even when Pratt works with intimate scenarios, they move with an oddly mercurial grandeur. Mariel Greenlee, perhaps the most gifted actor in the company, tugged at the heartstrings in her elaborate duet with Timothy June to "September When It Comes."

More typical of Pratt's style was the busy, shifting crowd of "Drinkin' My Baby Goodbye," which launches "Heart's Desire," and the lyrical group effusions of "All the Road Running," which concludes it.

Hochoy's way is to center the emotion more in individual dancers' bodies, with the charge coming from how these nearly self-contained physical worlds interact. I felt that the portions involving the whole company in "Deep in the Heart of Country" matched the material, but didn't bring out Hochoy's heart as effectively as the duets and trios.  For instance, the wit of "Stand By Your Man" made that anthem a punning play on sexual ambivalence: Timothy June skipped into view on the chorus, complicating the rapport between Dyson and Sears-Watson, and the three-way comic tension was delicious.

I loved the crispness of attitude and engagement with such songs as "Oh Lonesome Me," with Jillian Godwin and Liberty Harris a sassy tap-dancing pair. And the girl-buddy bonding, in rolling, artfully linked fashion, that Greenlee and Negron brought to "Free." And the tug of war between obsession and self-possession in how Godwin and Zach Young danced Patsy Cline's "Crazy."

"The Sources of Country Music" by Thomas Hart Benton.
"Kings & Queens of Country" recognizes how far country music has come, even at the risk of being alienated from its roots. It sits squarely on its familiar themes. It knows its territory. The show leaves aside the continuing strain of piety in the genre, but that merely acknowledges its present-day worldly spectrum — where the money is.

A classic representation of the tradition embodied in its practitioners is Thomas Hart Benton's famous mural "The Sources of Country Music" at the Country Music Hall of Fame. In this show, we are a long way from that painting's turning bodies, necks twisted, heads raised toward the far horizon and the chugging train speaking to the urge to move on and look for a better world. Pratt's choreography for the full company retains something of those postures, however.

Clark's airy, bright costumes suit Hochoy's fanciful side, just as they salute Nashville's glitzy veneer and the games that the commercialism of Music City has long played with aw-shucks material. Of all folk-derived American music, business values and a tendency toward slickness have seized country music for so long that there's hardly any point deploring their influence.

Both choreographers appear to recognize the precarious balance between the tell-it-like-it-is vibe of Nashville and its cult of celebrity and glamour. Pratt and Hochoy face the ambiguity as well, but that never casts a shadow on their exuberance. And the dancers respond to that indigenous quality at every turn.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Shrove Tuesday jazz program lets the good times roll at Second Presbyterian Church

Gary Walters was master of Second Pres' pre-Lenten revels.
Jazz is not naturally at home in churches, despite owing part of its history to the influence of African-American Christianity. But the music, now in full maturity, is adaptable for many situations, including a pre-Lenten celebratory program at Second Presbyterian Church on Tuesday evening.

Pianist Gary Walters, leader of the Second@Six jazz trio, welcomed a partishioner vocalist, Erin Benedict, and guest reedman Michael Strickln to the front of the chancel for an hourlong set. Other trio members are Chris Pyle, drums, and Steve Dokken, electric bass.

Benedict was an apt interpreter of such wistful numbers as Johnny Mandel's "Where Do You Start?" and Michel Legrand's "You Must Believe in Spring," whose first few phrases drew laughter from the winter-weary audience.

According to Walters, Benedict was responsible for the arrangements of the songs she sang. Among them was an effective pairing of the Beatles' "Blackbird" that swirled into a flapping of instrumental wings toward the evergreen "Bye Bye Blackbird." That took in a hearty Stricklin solo on tenor saxophone of the sort that confirmed the concert's jazz credentials impressively.

He was equally effective as a sparring partner for Benedict on such favorites as "Taking a Chance on Love." The fat, rolling style of his solo evoked Cannonball Adderley. It was perhaps an unconscious salute to one of jazz's most famous alto-chanteuse pairings: Adderley's album with Nancy Wilson (though "Chance" is not one of its songs).

Generally, Stricklin is his own man, and always a pleasure to hear. His versatility takes him beyond the "Texas tenor" stereotype, though he can roam that territory authentically. His playing Tuesday night was a typical blend of passion and competence — on soprano, alto and tenor saxes, with one outing on flute. He never pushed at the boundaries of intelligibility. Stricklin's fervent solos can take him close to the "outside," but it's always with the taste of a master chef knowing just how much spice to shake into the pot.

There were some appealing instrumentals to give Benedict a rest. Originals by Dokken and Walters showed the quartet's internal rapport. Dokken's "SWD" and "Lake Minnewaska" showed off the veteran bassist's affinity for jazz-rock fusion styles. The former piece rollicked over an insistent rhythmic ostinato implying fast triplets under four accented beats, giving the quartet something of the sound of a Celtic band in full cry.

Walters' facility and steady attention to the etiquette of swinging, qualities that make him an excellent accompanist, can readily blossom into bold turns in the spotlight,  That was the case on his own piece, "Air," where he worked its melodic content hard while probing its hard-bop idiom with an exciting solo that opened in the baritone range and flourished upward from there.

The set closed with a fleet, mostly tidy excursion through Stevie Wonder's "Sir Duke," the highlight of which was two choruses of scatting unison by Benedict and Stricklin. Another sweeping Stricklin tenor solo sealed the deal, and the audience's call for an encore got a response that both saluted New Orleans' Fat Tuesday traditions and the pious restraint called for by the season beginning today: "When the Saints Go Marching In."

Sunday, March 2, 2014

'Chaplinesque': the motion pictures from Chaplin till tonight — and a star-struck poet's motion sickness

A century and one month ago, the first actor to embed his persona in the new art of the motion picture appeared onscreen for the first time. As the glitz and tension surrounding the annual Academy Awards lie a few hours ahead of us, it's irresistible not only to celebrate Charlie Chaplin but also to reflect on the appeal and the shortcomings of Hart Crane, the American poet who first paid tribute to the great film comedian in verse.

Pre-tramp Charlie Chaplin in his movie debut, "Making a Living."
I can't help blogging now and again about literature, the art I know best, but this time it's for the sake of touting the most durable and widespread of the performing arts: the movies. Of course, since each film is set as one well-considered amalgam of performances (leaving aside director's cuts and the avenues they open to seeing other versions besides the marketplace original), it is a performing art with an asterisk.

But motion is its stock in trade, and of course part of its original name. More than the serious actors in early film, who had to cultivate a now-dated range of facial expressions and gestures to stand for emotions that couldn't be expressed by the spoken word, Chaplin was able to exploit a head-to-toe vocabulary of movement that added up to a complete, uniquely personified form of comedic communication.

"Chaplinesque" is an often anthologized poem. It proceeds a little more loosely than is Crane's high-rhetorical norm. It alludes to a popular aspect of Chaplin's Tramp character, the whimsy and sentimentality classically represented by "The Kid."  It amounts to a weak evocation of the urban loneliness and vulnerability of the Tramp's world, and is embarrassingly dependent on a kitten to drive the point home. Naturally, "Chaplinesque" often captures new readers feeling their way into poetry.
Kittenish kitsch spoils Hart Crane's Chaplin tribute.

Yet for all its strenuous grasp of the popular art that often inspired Crane, "Chapllinesque" doesn't get close to much that is central to its inspiration. Crane may have signaled that with his adjectival title. But what really seals the poem's failure for me is its remoteness from the essence of Chaplin — the way he moves, from his eyebrows on down, and how that radiates outward through his Tramp clothes, including the vital accessories of cane and derby.

Apart from the phrase "the pirouettes of any pliant cane," the poem remains aloof from Chaplin the performer. Of course, it is not necessary for a poet to display a gift for rendering physical motion. Many great poems are reflective or the counterpart of a painter's still life. Some meditate on time while deliberately stopping it. Crane could sometimes render physical action: "National Winter Garden," a section of "The Bridge," uneasily but doggedly describes New York burlesque shows of the 1920s. But could he have managed the Tramp's vertiginous, one-footed rounding a street corner? Apparently not.

Crane typically transmutes action into marble statuary. His poetry too often looks into Medusa's eyes and is turned to stone: The great "Proem: To Brooklyn Bridge" starts with the exhilaration of movement — "How many dawns, chill from his rippling rest / The seagull's wings shall dip and pivot him / Shedding white wings of tumult..." — but that poor bird quickly flaps its way into the empyrean and is seen no more. In its place, our view is directed to the Brooklyn Bridge, sitting stolidly on its glittering throne of human ambition and idealism.

In an involved essay called "General Aims and Theories," Crane defended his practice of what he called "the logic of metaphor." It's striking how often that logic veers away from action and its agents.  In one famous passage, for example, he defends the phrase "adagios of islands" in one of his best poems, "Voyages, " by saying "the reference is to the motion of a boat through islands clustered thickly, the rhythm of the motion, etc."

A plausible explanation of a pretty phrase, surely; but notice how this kind of image-making abstracts the soul of motion from the sight of those Caribbean islands as seen from a slow-moving boat, and the feel of that boat moving. To be sure, "adagio" in music indicates the movement of notes in slow time, but for that word to carry Crane's notion of movement, he has to discard what is actually doing the moving.

This habit of mind, I'm guessing, prevented him from writing a poem about Chaplin that would capture the essence of either this seminal actor or his medium. To other poets of the modern era, putting movement into words came much more naturally. Here is my short "motion carried" list, starting with two poems that release depicted movement from famous paintings: W.H. Auden's "Musee des Beaux Arts" and William Carlos Williams' "The Dance."  Williams also used direct observation to celebrate movement, most exuberantly in his swiftly impelled poem "The Yachts."
Breughel's "The Kermess," which inspired Williams' "The Dance."

Along with Robert Frost, Williams has a cinematic feeling for movement even when next to nothing is happening.  Witness his "To a Poor Old Woman," in which we not only see the subject enjoying the fruit she's eating, but also experience it as a process we can taste vicariously, as a moment in time not frozen, but — better yet — fluid.

As for Frost, his most famous poem, "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening," embodies a notion of motion in its largely static picture of wintry peace. The agent is the speaker's horse who "gives his harness bells a shake / To ask if there is some mistake" in the vehicle's unaccustomed  halt. The mode of transportation is crucial to the poem's tension; imagine how inert — and possibly death-haunted, as some commentators have claimed anyway — the poem would seem if the speaker had stopped his automobile by snowy woods and turned off the engine. The resistance to the speaker's decision by another sentient being has the kernel of drama in it, and its slight motion sets up a needed tension. Lo and behold, we're at the movies!

It isn't that high-toned, gnarled diction works against communicating movement in poetry, though it probably makes it more difficult.  In Robert Lowell's early modernist phase he wrote "The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket," a work whose rhetorical style is as highly worked as anything by Crane.  But the poem pulsates with vivid imagined activity at sea and among those who strive to master it.

In this mode, some poems unhappily fall into a category I should call "motion tabled": Wallace Stevens' "Sea Surface Full of Clouds," inspired by the twinned vision of clouds moving overhead as reflected in the independently churning sea below, is a movement-intensive concoction pureed in an image blender. It's a rare failure in a Stevens long poem that even Harold Bloom, his most vociferous critical admirer (and huge champion of Crane, by the way), deplores.

There's plenty of depicted motion in "Sea Surface...", all right, but the result — despite the rapturous tone — yields mal de mer, or at least a mental belch or two,  in the reader, long before the final tercets:

"The sovereign clouds came clustering. The conch
Of loyal conjuration trumped. The wind
Of green blooms turning crisped the motley hue

To clearing opalescence. Then the sea
And heaven rolled as one and from the two
Came fresh transfigurings of freshest blue."

As Dave Barry might say: "Motley hue — an excellent name for a rock band." (Oh, wait a minute.)

So, hail the Chaplin career centennial, and see you at the movies, folks!

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's Polish maestro draws on 20th-century music from his homeland

For Gorecki, Shara Worden put aside her pop persona as My Brightest Diamond
If you can manage it, it helps to dial back your nervous system — to access those alpha waves —in order to get the most out of Henryk Gorecki's "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs" (No. 3).

Expectations that a 53-minute symphonic work will be full of incident and a spectrum of moods have to be set aside. The piece, notoriously a best-seller on record in the 1990s but still a rarity in the concert hall, requires the kind of in-the-moment attention that successful meditation does.

Krzysztof Urbanski made the work the focus of an all-Polish Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra concert Friday night at Hilbert Circle Theatre. That spotlight might have been taken by a new work, an ISO commission, by Wojciech Kilar, if the composer had lived long enough to complete it.  His death on Dec. 29, however, kept his young admirer Urbanski from being able to premiere "Pastorale e capriccio."

In its place, Urbanski and the ISO are offering repeat performances of Kilar's "Krzesany," a short 1974 work celebrating the vigorous folk dances of Poland's Tatra Mountains. The work was last presented here two years ago in a performance I remember as tidier than Friday night's. The untidiness of the latter rendition can be largely attributed to an otherwise commendable outreach decision: From the podium, Urbanski enlisted 20 audience volunteers to play percussion instruments from the stage terrace as the work reached an ending that would have been noisy enough without them.

"Krzesany" deserves kudos for its close-up deployment of its folkloric inspiration. With its grinding string sonorities and unpredictable outbursts of brass and percussion, the piece probes far deeper into its sources than many symphonic compositions similarly inspired. But its final pages pitted exhilaration against clamorous overkill. An otherwise satisfying conclusion did battle with relief that the piece was over.

Getting back to the Gorecki:  The work is laid out with preternatural skill and patience. In the first movement, a 10-voice canon 24 measures long is layered with agonizing slowness until a magical paring down introduces the vocal soloist.

Shara Worden was selected by Urbanski at the suggestion of ISO director of artistic planning Zack French. Here's French's account, emailed to me March 2 to correct my original version of the story, which was prompted by Worden's remarks at her "Words on Music" appearance Feb. 28.

"About two years ago, I had a different soprano penciled in for that week (from the opera world) who had done the work several times around the country.  She didn’t have the kind of voice that Urbański was looking for, so we released the hold and continued searching.  He had a Polish pop artist in mind, but her voice was too gruff and she wouldn’t have been able to hit the high, sustained notes of the Górecki symphony.  I immediately thought of Shara, who had just sung in our Happy Hour (January 19, 2012 I think).  I played “We Added It Up” from My Brightest Diamond’s “All Things Unwind” album.   Her vocal range, control and timbre in that song was what sold him on using Shara for this weekend."

The third time was the charm, apparently: Worden performed the solos in all three movements with fervor and a graceful folksinger-like timbre. The use of a microphone didn't require her to access her little used operatic voice, which was a wise decision. The balance of voice and orchestra seemed just right, and amplification allowed Worden to avoid sounding overcultivated.  It also didn't force her to belt out the rare high and loud passages in ways that might have sounded coarse.

In "Words on Music" Friday evening, Worden told about her careful study of the Polish text, her pronunciation helped by Urbanski's coaching via Skype as well as her familiarity with Slavic sound production because of a year spent in Moscow. She also spoke of the challenge of placing her voice in an instrumental context which "is like a watercolor painting in the way he blurs sounds: he'll take the same line and scootch it over slightly, so you're not clear where the downbeat is."

That's a decent way of describing the overlapping of the piece's long, slow phrases. The procedure honors the mourning texts in a manner that dares the listener to have a perfunctory response. You're either caught up in Gorecki's steady embracing of the simply designed songs or you're tuning out.

Getting restless or inattentive tends to put the listener outside sympathy with the work's occasions for lamentation, like a motorist whose mundane errands are delayed by having to wait for a funeral procession passing in front of him. Woolgathering is wasteful when attending a concert, particularly one prepared as scrupulously as this one seems to have been.

Zach De Pue displayed mastery in Szymanowski.
Completing the program is the mercurial, colorful early modernism of Karol Szymanowski's Violin Concerto No. 1, with ISO concertmaster Zach De Pue as soloist. The neatly coiffed, business-suited De Pue clearly wanted concentration upon his performance rather than his usual, affable, millennial aura. The program biography didn't even mention his founding membership in the hip string trio Time for Three, though it alluded to it.

De Pue's playing of the demanding solo part, spread over five linked sections that make the piece seem like an involved autobiographical  narrative, was consistently enthralling. He projected the violin line with an almost heroic flair, closely coordinated with the kaleidoscopic variety of his colleagues' accompaniment. Urbanski elicited from the orchestra precision, light-and-shade spectacle, and grandeur all along the way.