Monday, March 30, 2015

Opera in excerpted form gets a thoroughgoing professional boost with James Caraher at Butler University

What was in evidence with developing singers Sunday at Butler University's Schrott Center recalled the polish and care that James Caraher gave for three decades to Indianapolis Opera productions.

The former IO artistic director has been brought onto the Butler music faculty in the part-time capacity of music director, and last weekend provided the community with a chance to savor the results of his inaugural semester in that role.

James Caraher elicited from student performers nicely finished work.
Enlisted to assist Butler's operatic progress by Thomas Studebaker, Butler University Opera Theatre music director, Caraher conducted students in a wide range of scenes and selections for between one and five singers, accompanied by the university's Symphony Orchestra.

The selections reflected practical choices for the 13 students ready to perform publicly, given that all but two of them were women. The imbalance brought to mind the situation facing the music school down the road: Casting challenges of Indiana University opera productions can be summed up in the phrase "200 sopranos." I don't know how accurately that number reflects enrollment in that voice category at the Jacobs School of Music, but the quip offers some idea of one of the difficulties of providing fair experience and advancement for at least some voice majors.

From opera seria through bel canto and verismo to folk-influenced American modern (Carlisle Floyd), the range in the two-hour program was considerable. There can be no faulting any gaps in the survey when the main idea was to showcase current vocal students in pieces whose accompaniments were within the orchestra's capability. I note the absence of Richard Wagner (except through a composer he strongly influenced, Engelbert Humperdinck, whose Evening Prayer duet from "Hansel and Gretel" was included) only to indicate the good sense in generally not putting burgeoning voices into that crucible.

All the capable young women available probably had something to do with the fact we heard some lower-level Mozart (the Finale of "Mitridate, Re di Ponto"), as it gave five of them an ensemble opportunity. All the singers were well employed in the program finale, "Va, pensiero" from Verdi's "Nabucco."  Always a stirring piece as long as one doesn't hear it too often, its main section is in unison and thus well-chosen for a group having just one singer each in the tenor and baritone categories.

A delightful novelty was an arrangement of the coloratura aria, "Una voce poco fa," spiffily played by two student bassoonists.

There were many places where Caraher's guidance really paid off. Tempo changes were always smoothly handled, as in the coordinated slowing of pace before the da capo return in Handel's "L'angue offeso" (from "Giulio Cesare"). A nicely modulated orchestral crescendo behind Dorabella's self-pity was the highlight of a beautifully balanced scene for the three women, chiefly the servant girl Despina (whom one inevitably calls "pert"), in Mozart's "Cosi fan tutte."  Top-drawer Mozart was most welcome here, as it was in quite a different piece, the pained soprano aria "Ach, ich fuhl's" from "The Magic Flute."

Caraher opened the program with something that always gets the pulse racing — the William Tell Overture, though only the galop portion (inevitably known to baby boomers as the Lone Ranger theme). And the frenzied, intermittently lyrical Bacchanale from Saint-Saens "Samson et Dalila" made for a smart conclusion to the first half.

It was so good to hear a bunch of opera in one afternoon presented under such expert control and with such well-considered insight into the nurture of some splendid young voices.

We are choosier Hoosiers now: My RFRA Fight Song, involving a borrowed tune, a regrettable occasion, some original words, and a direct-to-video performance

An RFRA Fight Song, dedicated to the narrow perspective of Scott Schneider, Eric Milller, Mike Pence et al.
Posted by Jay Harvey on Sunday, March 29, 2015

There's another one making the rounds using the same Meredith Willson tune ("Gary, Indiana"). I'll let my readers/watchers decide which makes the point better. Mine is certainly less professional visually and vocally, but at least it's family-friendly. Get those little kids to understand why this law is wrong, too!

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Opera maestro James Caraher resumes his place before the local public with new connection to Butler University

The disturbing episode that ended his long tenure with Indianapolis Opera last May is not something James Caraher wants to spend any time focusing on now.

"Everything was busy for a while," he said laconically of the brouhaha that shook the small, interconnected world of American regional opera in light of a planned demotion he was unwilling to accept after a long tenure as artistic director. "It's old news now. I don't hear about it anymore."

James Caraher was brought on board to broaden students' training and to increase public exposure to Butler's opera program.
In his quiet, determined manner, Caraher firmly turned this interviewer's attention to his association with the Butler University opera program.

That association became official this semester and will first show results to the public this weekend.

The Schrott Center will be the site of three performances of Butler Opera Theater's Scenes Program:  a collection of opera excerpts — from overtures through arias to ensembles, including a finale — conducted by Caraher, with student singers and the Butler Symphony Orchestra in the pit. Performances will be at 7:30 p.m. March 27 and 28 and 3 p.m. March 29. Tickets are $15 for adults, $8 for seniors and students; go to

Interviewed last month before rehearsals with the orchestra had started, Caraher offered this comparison of getting professional and student singers ready for public performance: "In some ways it's no different at all," he said, "but when the pros hit town they had nothing else to do but work on that opera for five to eight hours a day for three weeks."

Students have other demands on their time over the course of a semester: "They work really hard, but there's a little more need to be patient. It's still a matter of how do I get someone to accomplish what I'm after. I spend more time explaining things, and there's a variety of experience levels and varying degrees of talent. Not everyone there is looking for a career."

Thomas Studebaker, Butler opera director
"We're excited to have him," said Thomas Studebaker, an operatic tenor with an active career and director of Butler Opera Theatre. Caraher's three-plus decades of professional experience also provides the program with the benefit of preparing singers to work with an orchestra instead of just piano accompaniment. "Everybody has such respect for him," Studebaker added. "He's so amiable and such a fine musician."

Butler and Indianapolis Opera had enjoyed a solid association when Caraher was artistic director of the professional company, which recently hired Kevin Patterson as general director. (Caraher last conducted for Indianapolis Opera last March — two performances of Puccini's "Girl of the Golden West." Last season's final scheduled production, Britten's "Albert Herring," was canceled as the organization went into crisis mode.) Caraher had already been scheduled to conduct this scenes program, Studebaker pointed out.

When Caraher's break with Indianapolis Opera came, Studebaker started thinking: Wouldn't it be nice if we had him on staff? With Caraher's hiring as music director, Studebaker hopes to guide the program to greater public recognition and the eventual presentation of fully staged operas.

Caraher, who had been searching to sustain his career locally ("I would hate to leave Indianapolis; the more I can find here, the better"), readily accepted the position, while staying alert for guest conducting opportunities. "I'm still hoping to pick up some freelance things in places I've been before," he said.

Last July,  for instance, he continued a summertime association with the International Opera Performing Experience in Pesoro, Italy, which focuses on training in Italian opera and language. He conducted "La Traviata" in Florida in January, and (as a pianist) repeated a recital there that he had first performed in Minnesota with tenor Mark Thompson at a reception in 2013 for the visiting King and Queen of Sweden.

The three Butler Opera Theater concerts will include solo arias from "La Boheme," "Giulio Cesare," "L'elisir d'amore," "The Merry Widow," "Susannah," and "T'he Magic Flute," trios from "Cosi fan tutte," "The Mikado," "La Rondine," and "L'elisir d'amore," and duets from "Hansel and Gretel" and "Lakme."

The third-act quartet from "La Boheme" will be performed, plus the finale of Mozart's early opera, "Mitridate, Re di Ponto." The full company will sing the chorus "Va, pensiero" from Verdi's "Nabucco" to conclude the program.  Caraher will conduct the orchestra in the Bacchanale from "Samson and Delilah," the Overture to "William Tell," and the Intermezzo from "Cavalleria Rusticana."

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Ronen Chamber Ensemble: Recalling Mademoiselle, with the help of her IU-based "gift of my old age"

Nadia Boulanger, about the time when she wrote "Toward the New Life."
What Nadia Boulanger couldn't analyze in music, she ascribed to God, a rapt audience at the Ronen Chamber Ensemble concert learned Tuesday night in the Hilbert Circle Theatre's Wood Room.

To her pupils, it must have seemed that left very little to the credit of the Almighty, so all-embracing was Boulanger's knowledge.

The celebrated French pedagogue (1887-1979) could pinpoint the pluses and minuses in a piece of music like nobody else to generations of 20th-century musicians. The one under her tutelage for the longest time was Bulgarian-born pianist-composer Emile Naoumoff, the guest of honor at the Ronen's program honoring her.

But besides the grueling exercises in counterpoint and the intense focus on musical structure, "she was extremely mystical," Naoumoff told the audience in a preconcert interview conducted by Ronen co-artistic director Gregory Martin. " 'I accept grace and beauty,' she said. 'You don't even have to try to explain it.'" So there was plenty of room in music to honor God, after all, in her view.

Emile Naoumoff today
As a gifted child, Naoumoff was brought to Boulanger, who those in her circle referred to with special reverence simply as "Mademoiselle." The family had escaped from behind the Iron Curtain to Paris. When his parents asked  how long and when their son could study with her, Mademoiselle replied: "For 10 years, starting tomorrow." And so began almost a decade of incomparable tutelage, which carried with it introduction to Boulanger's star-studded musical world, including such 20th-century giants as Yehudi Menuhin and Sviatoslav Richter.

Boulanger and the Soviet pianist liked to talk about religion, Naoumoff reported. And Menuhin, a violin virtuoso turning to the podium in his later years,  after a rehearsal of Naoumoff's piano concerto paid the precocious composer a compliment he still treasures: "The musicians find it seriously well-written," Menuhin told him.

Two of Boulanger's greatest qualities, Naoumoff said, were humility and discernment. Her discernment was applied to pieces, not performances: "She never spoke of interpretation."  Nonetheless, she was enough aware of what contributed to acclaim in the musical universe that she gently advised Naoumoff after the well-received, Menuhin-conducted concert: "You are not responsible for the success of last night."

Music performed Tuesday ranged from Naoumoff's poignant "Romance," written in response to his long-delayed return to his childhood home and played feelingly by Martin, to Igor Stravinsky's lively but poker-faced Three Pieces for Clarinet Solo, to which Ronen co-founder David Bellman gave a colorful reading. Most affecting was the program finale, however, Nadia's "Toward the New Life," written in honor of her beloved sister, who died in her 20s in 1918.

Also shoring up the biographical and personal connections was a Nocturne (for violin and piano) by Lili. Austin Hartman joined Martin in this and two other pieces: Lili's perky "Cortege" and Ravel's "Berceuse on the Name Gabriel Fauré." Fauré was a perpetual icon in Boulanger's estimation.

Naoumoff's bracing, four-movement "Divertimento for Oboe and Piano" — a product of his mid-teens — was adroitly characterized by oboist Jennifer Christen, with Martin at the keyboard. If the composer's job is (Naoumoff paraphrasing Boulanger here) "to serve the performer; the public comes after," this piece seemed a good indication of how well Naoumoff absorbed that lesson.

Other Boulanger pupils represented on the program were Jean Francaix, who like Naoumoff was taken on by "Mademoiselle" in boyhood — decades earlier, however. The prolific Francaix once advised Naoumoff: "Never write anything boring." Martin and co-founder Ingrid Fischer-Bellman played three short pieces that indicated the older composer practiced what he preached.

Flutist Alistair Howlett was teamed with the hyperbusy Martin in Aaron Copland's Duo for Flute and Piano, its three movements full of characteristic Copland gestures, angular melodies, and harmonies familiar from his larger and more ambitious works, which made him the most-performed American composer of the 20th century. In "The New Music" (1969), Copland wrote such a complete encomium to the woman who taught him as a young man that it seems suitable as a conclusion for this account of an attractive evening of music and musical talk:

"Two qualities possessed  by Mlle. Boulanger make her unique: one is her consuming love for music, and the other is her ability to inspire a pupil with confidence in his own creative powers. Add to this an encyclopedic knowledge of every phase of music past and present, an amazing critical perspicacity, and a full measure of feminine charm and wit."

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Hail, and alas! In 2015, attention must be paid to Arthur Miller

At the high end of American popular culture, there are two birth centenaries worth celebrating this year. That of Frank Sinatra is already showing up in presenters' schedules for next season. But Arthur Miller was also born in 1915, and I'm interested in seeing observances honoring this significant playwright pop up on theater schedules, especially locally.

Arthur Miller (1915-2005)
I'm getting in early on the celebration — Miller's 100th birthday comes in October — partly because I don't want to spoil the party. You see, I have severely mixed feelings about Miller's work.

True, it is often stunningly effective on the stage, getting to the heart of social problems and their intersection with private lives. It scrutinizes ways in which the mid-20th century mangled human dignity, ironically in the aftermath of American triumph — our way of life a model, our global hegemony virtually unchallenged.

In his first flush of fame, Miller's work displayed the uncanny knack of taking on the value the playwright embedded in his scripts. The significance of his plays seemed inseparable from the way they told us they were important. Nowhere is this more evident than in his most famous play, "Death of a Salesman."

And the locus classicus within that drama is the speech of the protagonist's wife, Linda, chiding the couple's two self-involved sons for their lack of respect for their salesman father. Here's its heart: "I don't say he's a great man. Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He's not the finest character that ever lived. But he's a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He's not allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person."

The speech makes me squirm, frankly. It's Exhibit A of the self-regard that shadows Miller's output. I'm not saying Linda's speech rings false, but it's a little odd that, while it opens by underplaying Willy's significance,  it then kind of grandstands — with an odd use of the passive voice, considering that she is responding specifically to her sons' lack of regard for their father. She wants to say something more than "You should pay attention." She would implicate us all in his fate.

So out comes "Attention must be paid," and lo, the line blossoms into a talisman for understanding  the pathos of a changing post-war America. Here's how the most esteemed drama critic of the era, Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times, used the line in praising the play: "The power, the knowledge and the sincerity of 'Death of a Salesman' have persuaded millions of people to pay attention to the tragedy of this victim of the American cant about success."

Sorry, but Willy Loman is more pathetic than tragic, and that goes for his play's most famous line. Game-playing being healthier than nursing annoyance, I've chosen to exorcise my disdain by parody. I've imagined the speech adapted loosely in the style of a half-dozen English and American playwrights who enjoyed prominence in the course of Miller's long life (he died 10 years ago last month). I'm after the characteristic rhetoric and language rhythms of these playwrights, though those who continue reading may recognize the inspiration of particular plays and characters. To reinforce the parallelism, I've tucked in allusions to the dog and death imagery near the end of Linda's speech to complement that blasted "attention" motif.

Happy birthday, Arthur! Please mark my attention "paid in full"!


We were strong men and women straining
To live fully among the mutant seasons
Of fullness or want, among whispers of eternity,
Paying attention, getting attention paid
To us, knowing that attention can become itself
Inattention if we rest in it, seeking somewhere
A garden refuge from lengthening shadows,
Shadows that reach along the corridors
Of smooth stone and urge us graceless
To descend and descend like jackals or dogs
Into obscure graves strewn with faded rose petals.

Harold Pinter

Attention, you say? You want my attention, fancy that. Well, don’t prate to me about attention. (Pause.) I’ve put my bleeding arse on the line time and again to give you the attention your mum thought you deserved. She was as mistaken as she could be, rest her soul. (Pause.) What have you made of your life? Give you a few bob and you just piss it away. Gone to the dogs, you have. I’ll pay attention to you, all right, and watch my back too, I will. (Pause.) Now clean up this mess and let’s get on down to the track. (Pause.) I feel lucky today.

Tom Stoppard

Attention! Has an unmistakable ring to it, doesn’t it? Especially when you shout it. Not as menacing as Achtung!, which carries a certain baggage, of course. But still, you shout “Attention!” and attention must be paid. (Looks into the wings. Beat. Turns and looks into the far corners of the stage.) Is there a way out of here for us, do you suppose, a smooth way? You’ve been tense, I’ve been tense. A tension must be paved, perhaps with good intentions, like the road to — oh, you know. But why shouldn’t that road lead in the other direction as well? People don’t think about that. They say they have empathy for us, as if that helps. Empathy is emotional colonialism. Whatever happened to sympathy? Unfashionable, of course. Empathy is just a land grab, really. Someone dumps their feelings into me and I become a container for them. What’s left of me? I’m a sausage casing. A dog would choke on me getting to the meat. That’s the attention they’re willing to pay, but it’s not paid in our currency or coin, is it? (Tosses a coin into the air and catches it several times.) This is our coin, and I’m entitled to toss it to determine if we go here or go there. Pay attention now, and call it, heads or tails.

Tennessee Williams

You will say I have always craved attention, which may be true, but I have done so in the manner to which people of good breeding were brought up long ago. When I look at the human wrecks of dreamers scattered about me, I am wanting only to salvage what I can, going far away from anything tawdry and common before the sun sets, far from the humid corners of alleyways and disheveled bedrooms. Attention must be paid to such as I, because how else can generosity of spirit survive in this world? There are so few of us left adequate to the task. I have paid dearly for the attention of gypsy fortune tellers, stepping over their sleeping dogs in the doorway, parting the thin beaded curtains, groping in the dark toward the fake crystal ball, sitting down at the narrow table, touching the hag’s knees with mine, giving everything I have to the threadbare hope that sustains me.

A.R. Gurney

Attention? Or course. It’s what we do. It sets us apart. We pay attention to the right things. What to talk about at table. What china to put out for what kind of dinner. When to go down to the club or out for a drive. Whom to tell about it beforehand. Or afterward. Whom to ignore and how to apologize for ignoring them if you need to. How to offer proper condolences, whether we liked the deceased or not. To be seen where it counts, like at Westminster. Attention must be paid to such things.

August Wilson

You always gotta look the world’s ways straight in the eye and figure out where you fit, y’hear? Your daddy never done that and look where it got him. Nowhere. He don’t even know his way around his own little world no more. That’s the truth, and worse, all around that little world — which I mean to say is our world, too: The Hill — around that world is the bigger one, run by white folks. And he always thought that if he got the white folks’ attention they would be bound to respect him. Attention must be paid to me, he thought, because I’m a colored man of quality. Yes, he thought quality would speak for itself, you see. But quality in a black man don’t say nothing much to white folks. To most of ‘em we all just dogs that bark about the same. So now your daddy about ready to meet his maker ‘cause he didn’t tend to his business. He lost respect in the world he knew and never had none in the other. Hurts me how everybody done decided to waste no pity on him. Seems to me he deserve better.

Monday, March 23, 2015

In IRT's new Upper Stage production, Pearl Cleage's smart, ambitious black middle class navigates bumpy rapids in 'the flow of history'

Coming to terms with social change is more than a matter of choosing sides. The larger task is adjusting your sense of who you are to circumstances you have next to no control over.

That's what the four major characters in Pearl Cleage's "What I Learned in Paris" face in the bright historic moment of Maynard Jackson's 1973 victory in Atlanta's mayoral election. As the campaign crests in triumph, highly placed workers at headquarters — a spacious condo owned by the well-traveled Evie Madison — celebrate the reality and the symbolism behind the election of the South's first black mayor.

Evie (Erika LaVonn) and J.P. Madison (David Alan Anderson)
The problem at the play's center is romantic mismatch beneath the joyful surface. Can J.P. Madison,  a powerful, self-confident lawyer and Evie's ex-husband, make a likely ascent to the position of city attorney without a hint of personal scandal? It would appear there's something in the way: His publicly announced marriage to the ingenuous Ann never happened.

As the reasons why are probed, the fault lines in J.P.'s relationship with his friend and subordinate John Nelson are revealed. And machinations to rush a true wedding into reality encounter several obstacles. One of them appears to be the return of Evie from California, where she has become steeped in New Age ways and convinced that there's a place for her skills in the new Atlanta. And the further knowledge reflected in the play's title fuels her concept of the emergent strong woman she exemplifies. As she sweeps in to fulfill her destiny, she enlists loyal campaign worker Lena Jefferson to help J.P. and Ann tie the knot — which for good reason threatens to become unraveled.

Indiana Repertory Theatre patrons with long memories know how skillful Cleage is at stirring matters to a dramatic boil and emphasizing the gumption and grit of African-American women: Her "Flyin' West" was produced with great success at the IRT in 1992. In "What I Learned in Paris," she pits male ambition and the misplaced pride of self-sufficiency against the female genius for biding one's time, picking up cues from the environment, and rising to the occasions often clumsily created by male vanity and tone-deafness. The phrase "the flow of history" is on everyone's lips, but it means something extra to Evie.

Erika LaVonn as Evie was statuesque, robustly articulate, and domineering as seen in Sunday's matinee performance. She managed this assertive character's show of vulnerability beautifully in the second act. Cleage has fashioned a character here who struck me as a distant relative of Oscar Wilde's Lady Bracknell in "The Importance of Being Earnest." Wilde's imperious aristocrat applies her narrow view of social values worth upholding with the keen powers of observation and a gift for paradoxical wit that Cleage's Evie nearly matches.

There are two key differences: Evie applies her certainty from a broad perspective that reflects the currents of change swirling through the early '70s, and she is fatefully still in the game romantically, whereas Lady Bracknell is far above the battle, looking down. Evie almost seems to be too fond of holding forth to listen well, but that's a smokescreen; she's a marvelous creation — a model of attention to detail and an adept lay sociologist, whether she owes anything to Lady Bracknell or not.

David Alan Anderson dependably projects a larger-than-life aura that suits the character of J.P. Madison to a T. Used to being sure of himself and conveying that unmistakably to others, J.P. also is in a precarious position at the intersection of his personal and professional lives — which his ex-wife recognizes better than anybody. Anderson adds to his admirable record of filling to the max portrayals of men to be reckoned with, yet his performance Sunday was in no danger of glossing over J.P.'s weaknesses.

Playwright Pearl Cleage
Cedric Mays conveyed the torment, both romantic and political, of John Nelson, J.P.'s right-hand man and apparent rival. His physical acting — neatly modulated between aggressive and insecure — was marvelous in the scene when he decides to lay his cards on the table with his boss about the woman they seem to be competing for. That woman, Ann, was delicately portrayed by LaKeisha Randle; as the one naive member of the dramatis personae who wises up as the drama unfolds, she had an out-on-a-limb assignment that she handled superbly. Tracey N. Bonner as the campaign-support pro Lena Jefferson was a vivid blend of go-fer and shrewd ad-hoc assistant to Evie.

Director Lou Bellamy had his skillful cast working smoothly, aided by Cleage's canny manipulation of exits and entrances, every one of which is well-timed to advance the plot. For all its talkiness, this is a romantic comedy of exquisite timing. Its conclusion is in the time-honored tradition of its genre in having one couple you're rooting for finally get together and a second one, with more baggage to bring to a reconciliation, also close the gap.

Sets and costumes were lightly suggestive of 40-odd years ago. Between scenes, a fine selection of old-school soul music cleverly mirrored the action and evoked the era. It's been hard to avoid spoilers in this review, so let me just say that the positioning of "People Get Ready" couldn't have been better.

[Production photo credit: Zach Rosing]

Sunday, March 22, 2015

At the Palladium, the Wayne Shorter Quartet displays as fine a group rapport as you'll find in today's jazz

Ever since the triumph of bop more than six decades ago, the center of jazz on small-group interaction has given rise to several generations of musicians thoroughly adaptable to any bandstand configuration involving a handful of like-minded colleagues.

So, what the Wayne Shorter Quartet has exhibited so far in the 21st century is not different in kind from the expert norm. What was confirmed Saturday night at the Palladium is its higher degree of simpatico music-making in the quartet format. Leaping arcs of energy could be sensed throughout the performance, even if the direction was sometimes confusing until viewed in retrospect.

Arcs of energy: Brian Blade, Wayne Shorter, Danilo Perez and John Patitucci
With bandmates Danilo Perez, piano; John Patitucci, bass, and Brian Blade, drums, the 81-year-old saxophonist laid out 90 minutes of distinctive music. The telepathy was nonstop. With this durable personnel, Shorter has built on the famous aesthetic of Weather Report, of which he was co-founder with keyboardist Joe Zawinul: Everyone solos and no one solos — all the time.

In other words, the ensemble rules continuously, with each member so secure among the others that he can branch out with bursts of individualistic display that somehow don't threaten the integrity of the whole. The focus was unrelenting: The group offered about a half-dozen tunes, taking no intermission and making no announcements.

Comparing Shorter's stamina and consistency as the group's inspiration and senior member with the quartet's recordings over the past 15 years, some decline was evident Saturday night. But the characteristic sound and the invitingly cryptic phrasing were still in force, and far from a shadow of their old selves. The wonderful sound he gets on tenor, wispy and generally high-register, sustained the career-long extension Shorter has made on Lester Young; the soprano tone favors more piercing, trumpet-like sonorities, sometimes evoking (again, in sound, not style) Sidney Bechet, but without the vibrato.

Until the encore, almost everything the group played eschewed getting into a groove. I'm not so much of a moldy fig as to insist it's not jazz if it doesn't obviously swing, but the Wayne Shorter Quartet is capable of swinging to the utmost. And it would have been satisfying to catch a little more willingness to go in that direction. Still, remaining out-of-tempo (sometimes called "rubato") for many minutes at a time ensured that an apparently dreaded hierarchy could be avoided: drummer as timekeeper, with bass providing the harmonic foundation upon which the piano erects a viable structure for the saxophone to surmount. That's not the Wayne Shorter Quartet way.

With all things literally being equal, one could thus appreciate Blade's alternation of subtlety with startling bass-drum "bombs" and pistol shots on snare and toms. Patitucci's rhapsodic style got a full outing, as usual, including strong, in-tune arco playing. And Perez exhibited his marvelous variety as a crafter of sweet fragments of melody, a rhythmic powerhouse and a master of powerful chords, often linked together in stunning sequences.

There can't be too many more years for this four-way marvel to be active, and it should be stressed that the leader still has lots to say on the evidence of this concert. In his ninth decade, Shorter can't be faulted for banking his fires somewhat. He still sends up enough flares to be worth paying attention to.

[Photo credit: Dorsay Alavi]

Saturday, March 21, 2015

New concerto embedded with loads of sentiment debuts at ISO Palladium concert

In what is often considered the abstract world of instrumental music, particularly classical, there turns out to be quite a lot of explicit tribute-paying, memorializing, and other ways of bringing forward personal loyalties and affinities, often tinged with loss and regret.

The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra is introducing another piece in that tradition this weekend in three different halls — the Palladium in Carmel, the orchestra's Hilbert Circle Theatre home, and Avon High School (Hendricks Regional Health Performing Arts Center).

James Beckel honors brass, parents and a child violinist's tune.
ISO principal trombonist James Beckel has supplemented the legacy with his Concerto for Brass and Orchestra. The tradition he's extended, which overlaps with so-called program music, ranges from J.S. Bach's "Capriccio on the Departure of His Beloved Brother" through Alban Berg's Violin Concerto (dedicated "to the memory of an angel" [Manon Gropius]) to Jennifer Higdon's "blue cathedral."

The Indianapolis Star has related in great detail the foundation of much of the work, especially in the first movement, upon a melody ("Mama's Waltz") that concertmaster Zach De Pue wrote at 6 years old in memory of his mother, who died in a traffic accident. Beckel not only persuaded De Pue to let him use the tune in this ISO-commissioned work, but he also decided to have his composition honor "the mentoring of loving parents."

 (The Star's promotion of the story put the composer entirely in the shade, as though "Mama's Waltz"
had donned the concerto mantle all by itself:
The sorrow of losing his mother lingered for decades for Zach De Pue, the now 35-year-old concertmaster of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. A simple melody he wrote at age 6 as tribute and rediscovered years later is a concerto premiering this weekend."

Zach De Pue, soloist and inspiration.
On top of all that, the title reminds us that the new work significantly honors orchestral brass — trumpets, trombones, horns and tuba — by spotlighting its expressive and technical capability throughout. It's a highly effective exposition of the instruments among which Beckel has spent his professional life.

The opening movement, where the devotion to the De Pue tune is most pronounced, is very intricately constructed. On first hearing, it seemed too busy.

The brass contingent moves from antiphonal positions on either side of the choral terrace to a massed position at its center, then down to the stage to join its colleagues. It was exciting to take in such shifting perspectives on the featured group. The dynamic variety in the score is stunning, colorful and virtuosic. Yet Beckel is careful not to lose touch with the simplicity of a child's inspiration in recalling his absent mother with a tender waltz.

The second movement also packs in quite a lot, but its variety struck me as more frankly charming and companionable. The elegiac mood is largely put aside. The composer's program note indicates the first section reflects a child's anger at the sudden loss of a beloved parent. That declared tie-in is to be respected, but Beckel's muse is generally so upbeat that I received the movement's opening as openly energetic and anticipatory — a bright corridor leading to the display to come.

The finale, even brighter and verging on the garish, puts a seal on the new work's effectiveness. Its intended mood of celebration is brilliantly rendered, with the featured brass often given extra ping by mallet percussion. The sudden hush before the final outburst couldn't be better timed: Beckel knows how to marshal his forces to the very end, providing moments of relief and reflection where they are most welcome. Led by music director Krzysztof Urbanski, the premiere performance exhibited love and commitment in every phase.

What an emotional wallop it is on the same program to have De Pue enter as featured soloist! He played Samuel Barber's Violin Concerto with an expressive breadth not always evident. The reigning lyricism of the first movement, as soloist and orchestra enter immediately with an engaging melody, was lent ample contrast by De Pue's vigorous passagework. The music's sweetness never became cloying. The middle movement had a poise and straightforwardness in Friday's performance that also banished the saccharine, keyed to the floating, Apollonian quality Jennifer Christen brought to the oboe solo, which the soloist sustained. The perpetual-motion finale found everybody digging in and De Pue remaining in exquisite control of the demanding solo role, which does amazing things none of the history of violin virtuosity had registered before.

And no ISO classical program in recent memory has done so much to salute the professionalism and artistic excellence of its personnel as this one.  Fortunately, it's scheduled to be heard three times in the metropolitan area in three places. The Beckel concerto will get even more exposure, as it was co-commissioned by the Evansville Philharmonic, the Oklahoma City Philharmonic, and the Omaha Symphony.

Dvorak's Slavonic Dances, Op. 46, by which the Czech composer made his reputation, occupies the program's second half. Urbanski displayed his usual aptness for balance and judicious color in drawing appealing accounts from the ISO in the course of the eight dances. The woodwinds offered much to savor. The slow dances were inviting, and the momentum of the fast ones was soul-stirring. The shifts in meter and tempo that characterize these dances were precisely managed. The spirit of the dance jostled for space among all the other benign spirits represented in this concert. The ISO's downtown patrons and those in Hendricks County are in for a treat.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Trio Eunoia favors the excitement of the new at Indianapolis Museum of Art.

Almost a century of music was spanned in Trio Eunoia's concert for the Ensemble Music Society Thursday evening at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, which took its annual turn as co-presenter for the kinds of EMS presentations that stretch beyond the norm.

Trio Eunoia is a new group without (yet) a group photo: Hanick (from left), Dalby, and Campbell played as much more of a unit than these images imply.
This program qualified handsomely.  Anchoring all the still-unfamiliar sounds of 20th-century music on the program was Stravinsky's "Suite Italienne," chosen (as cellist Jay Campbell explained) to illustrate the musicians' concern to display the link between new and old music. It probably was the piece that went down easiest with the audience, being a particularly vivid setting, with some piquant harmonies, of the composer's adaptation of Pulcinella, a ballet on 18th-century themes commonly attributed to Pergolesi.

Campbell and pianist Conor Hanick offered a crisp, colorful account of the suite. Though the piano part is no walk in the park, most of the melodic and figurative emphasis is on the cello. Campbell's playing was meltingly expressive and, where needed (especially in the Tarantella), fleet and rambunctious. The performance provided as keen a display of the aspect of modernism that looked backward past the 19th century as anyone might ask for.

Otherwise the program consisted of 20th-century trio music. The only reminiscences were fragmentary and spiced with dissonance. The vehicle, of course, was Charles Ives' 1909 Piano Trio, which ended the concert. Performers putting across Ives well have to throw themselves entirely into the melange of old tunes and the clash of independent lines — any of which is liable to be suddenly interrupted by a new section in another key or tempo.

Trio Eunoia met every one of these challenges. It's important that the apparent confusion in Ives' scores is not represented as indecision or aimlessness. It all heads in a firmly planted direction, although with a wide sweep that is likely to gather just about every musical souvenir that Ives wants to present and display it proudly.

In the 1909 Trio, after the exalted mishmash of "Tsiaj (This Scherzo Is a Joke)," that pride ends on a high plan of nobility with a full statement of "Rock of Ages" on the cello, which Campbell played exquisitely. I also admired the two-fisted projection of thumping themes in the piano during the middle movement, and Dalby's assertive projection of melodic material while fighting the sometimes formidable odds of what Ives' detractors would frankly call noise.

The program opened with the work of a still-living American composer, Charles Wuorinen, a prolific exponent of serialism whose personal language expresses high spirits, rhythmic vigor and surprise.
The recording I own featuring the composer at the piano is more aggressive and bristling, particularly at the outset. But without knowing the score it would be presumptuous to fault Trio Eunoia for taking some of the edge off the piece. I found Thursday's musicians adept at exploring the variety and gracefulness of the work, particularly toward the end.

The program's other two works are characteristically well-focused statements by two modernist Japanese composers — Toru Takemitsu and Toshio Hokosawa.  The venerated master Takemitsu's "Between Tides" provides a steady look at an abstract seascape of considerable calm. Passages of stately unison become delicately unraveled, then coalesce once again. Suggestions of conflict are held at arm's length, as nothing is allowed to disturb the detailed tranquility. The mood was admirably sustained by Dalby, Hanick, and Campbell.

Hokosawa, the youngest composer represented, pays tribute to his Korean teacher Isang Yun, in  "Memory." This 1996 work strips away any interest in melody and harmony to push forward tone color and texture. The players are required to maintain a blend of dissonant sound that allows not even a momentary disintegration of the total ensemble effect.  "Memory" is an enthralling piece that asks us to set aside some of the handholds we usually depend on as listeners. Trio Eunoia helped us feel comfortable giving up that security, especially in compelling us to listen to so much well-controlled playing at the wispiest, softest end of the dynamic spectrum.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

My assignment from Twyla Tharp, inspired by her Sutphin Series Lecture at the University of Indianapolis

Sestina: The Creative Habit

                                                "Write a sestina, for heaven's sake!"
                                                                     -- Twyla Tharp, 3/18/2015

Twyla Tharp touted her book, 'The Creative Habit'

[N.B.: The choreographer's advice went to a large audience in Ruth Lilly Performance Hall, DeHaan Fine Arts Center, not just to me, in recommending that people might resort to such an exercise to get them unstuck and jump-start the creative process. The end-words in the following poem had significant roles to play in Tharp's University of Indianapolis lecture, a more authoritative meditation on creativity than what follows. I've included one violation of the sestina form in honor of the master weaver's traditional "flaw in the carpet," which acknowledges that nothing human can be perfect. Ms. Tharp came out against fetishizing perfection, too.]

It starts in a bare room with accommodation to solitude,
Where something may finally come of all the scratching
And clawing through the underbrush of memory.
How grubby it feels to be the paladin of original
Quests, having to make strenuous love to a past
Indifferent to your intentions, staying or moving!

Your friends may find the difficult outcome moving,
And their responses could warm your solitude.
But, taking the long view, you discover that memory
Of triumphs can't hide the hint of failures scratching
At your door. You open it. Your cat dashes past
And up the stairs, like a cliche chasing an original

Mouse, the avatar of classicism (nothing original)
Toward romanticism, hiding in a corner, not moving
Until the coast is clear, and the sharp memory
Of safety restores it. Behind the baseboard, scratching,
It senses a new route, outside the box of the past,
Something worthy of its flickering trials of solitude.

You can meet at least halfway the ache of others' solitude
With the certainty that the utterly unique isn't original
After all, but fades into health like a dappled bruise past
The hurt you had so much trouble burying deep in memory.
So much time gone, so much effort wasted in scratching
The surface of what once convulsed you into moving!

Time to recalibrate, check the function of all those moving
Parts of your creative engine, throw over idolatry of those "original"
Notions, the neglect of skills you husbanded so well in the past.
On the blank wall, canvas, or page before you that has you scratching
Your head like a cartoon character lies the gift of your solitude
Begging for release from the vital prison of generative memory.

"Stretch, bounce to get going — it generates optimism." The memory
Of her words and how she said them, to stress the primacy of moving,
Should hang as on a stitched sampler in the white rooms of our solitude.
Then, after savoring the allure of fakes that we once took for original,
We bite the authentic gold coin, grinning like a merchant of times past
At the transaction genuinely concluded, its image secure from scratching.

Well beyond scratching the creative itch, the dreamed body in moving
Springs free from the original stasis of its fortunately required solitude
To prepare for the memory a present to be yielded with thanks to the past.

[Photo by Todd Moore]

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Programming flair, judicious interpretations: Richard Ratliff gives a 35th-anniversary piano recital at the University of Indianapolis

Showing his typical knack for programming — as balanced, gently animated, and attractive as an Alexander Calder mobile — Richard Ratliff played a solo piano recital Monday night in observance of his 35 years on the faculty of the University of Indianapolis.

The professor of piano and artistic initiatives offered oral program notes in a couple of places to supplement his characteristically detailed descriptions in the printed program. No doubt everyone left Ruth Lilly Performance Hall knowing more about what had been so conscientiously prepared for them to enjoy.

Richard Ratliff
And enjoyment was the subtly extended invitation Ratliff offered in a three-part recital. The first of Beethoven's late series of piano sonatas, No. 28 in A major, op. 101,  provided a crest in the middle, with shorter works — many of them "character pieces," flanking it.

Over the years, an autumnal quality has come into Ratliff's playing with increasing prominence. Mellowness that should not be mistaken for lassitude suffused Monday's recital. To take up the Beethoven first, even the second-movement march that foreshadows the highly charged complexity of the finale had its points of rest and recharging emphasized.  The movements on either side of it, compact and engaging, were played with tenderness and a slightly evasive feeling.

The weight of this sonata is in the tightly wound finale. Its momentum in this performance was unfortunately checked by a memory slip. Recovery from it seemed assured as the well-planned account approached its end. The constituent lines that pile upon one another were kept clear and sonorous.

For contrapuntal heft and an even more assertive serious tone, there was Shostakovich's Prelude and Fugue No. 24 in D minor to conclude the recital. This work, with its tense air of anticipation wrapped in gloom, gathers up all its strength in the fugue. It's a menacing construction, somewhat at expressive cross purposes near the end, as Ratliff pointed out in remarks from the stage beforehand. That made it an extra exciting conclusion to the evening.

The recital opened with an evocative early piece by Zoltan Kodaly, getting from Ratliff a proper amount of pedal to give a nice haze to Debussyan harmonies as the slight melodic material is treated with elegiac frugality. In two sonatas by Scarlatti, I missed somewhat the militaristic character of the E major, whose fanfare figures seemed nearly folded into the performance's understatement. Both explored the inner dimensions of this composer's forthright manner.

Melody was foremost in three of Grieg's Lyric Pieces.  "Homesickness" rang out plaintively, with its constrained theme; "Sylph" was delightfully elusive, and "Evening in the Mountains" had its melancholy folk character underlined. This mood of stoic isolation was picked up late in the program in the nostalgia of Joseph Schwantner's "Veiled Autumn," the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer's only piece for piano solo, the notes tell us. Ratliff brought it off with the hints of wind chimes and harp found elsewhere in Schwantner's music.

UIndy's John Berners was represented by an excerpt of his "Zoot Suite," a ragtime-inflected charmer called "Rag Nocturne." It seemed to draw on the more reflective side of this noble American idiom, evoking such pieces as Scott Joplin's "The Chrysanthemum." In miniature, it summed up much of the appeal of an appealingly elevated recital, which wore its cause of celebration with elegance.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Mailing delay may have turned Aaron Goldberg's new CD 'The Now' into 'The Tomorrow', but pianist's trio whetted the appetite for it with one Jazz Kitchen set

The Jazz Kitchen's new policy of opening on Sunday for one evening set has boosted the 21-year-old club's ability to schedule  both local and national acts.

Touring behind his new disc, lack of available product didn't faze Aaron Goldberg
On March 15, the Aaron Goldberg Trio was on hand to exhibit its skills mainly on material from the pianist's new CD, 'The Now.' The discs weren't on hand due to a possible miscommunication — which syllable of "overnight" doesn't the post office understand? — but a sizable audience got treated to a vigorously rendered sample.

It may not have mattered to those who were particularly taken with the pianist's sidemen here — bassist Matt Penland and drummer Obed Calvaire— insofar as those two players aren't represented on the Sunnyside CD. But the quality of this trio suggested that it doesn't occupy an inferior position to the CD's personnel: Goldberg, Reuben Rogers, and Eric Harland.

The arrangements were skillful and often surprising. Goldberg has his own version of what has come to be favored among jazz piano trios — a true three-way collaboration. Sometimes the main melodic statements were divided between bass and piano, as on the first tune, a Brazilian love lament titled "Trocando em Miudos," which opened the set. As essential and imaginative as Calvaire's contributions were to this piece and the next, Charlie Parker's "Perhaps," I began to worry that the drums were too loud except when the bass was playing.

The mix improved considerably on the third tune (the piano was brought up) — an infectious Haitian number called "Yoyo." Calvaire put his Haitian heritage to work creatively here. Both he and Goldberg were very comfortable maintaining cross-rhythmic poise in their solos.

A reflective original, Goldberg's "The Wind in the Night," displayed a style in ballads the pianist was also able to adapt to faster music. He folds in decorative figures that are always to the point. On Sunday, I  never got the idea he was decorating a line just to provide filler. And throughout the set, Goldberg had an unusually advanced ability to keep his hands independent. His rhythmic acuity clearly inspired Penman and Calvaire.

A moderately paced, calypso-flavored song (not identified from the stage) gave Penman a particularly expansive showcase, starting with a long solo cadenza. In terms of accuracy, fresh ideas and nimble fingerwork, I would place Penman in this performance right up there on his instrument with the wizardly Christian McBride.

The set closed with the fastest "All of Me" I've ever heard. The tempo seemed to hold no terrors for anyone at any point along the way. The rendition was crowned by an exciting phenomenon I might call – in honor of Comic Con, which concluded in town Sunday — the Incredible Shrinking Exchange Pattern. That entailed progressively shorter alternations of percussion and piano soloing that charged right up into a brief statement of the song's final phrases.

By that time, the current Aaron Goldberg Trio had given its all. To paraphrase the song, we took the part that once was its heart, thanks to the trio's generosity. But I bet the gentlemen had plenty of heart left. It doesn't seem to be a quality they are in much danger of running out of.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

"That could have been my lucky penny": An agnostic's sermon for the Lenten season

With a friend one pleasant afternoon, I was walking down a charming, residential side street in a big city. The sidewalks were not crowded, but a number of people were out enjoying the nice day.

Looking down, I noticed a coin on the ground, and then another nearby, about the same time that a poorly dressed woman, a stranger to me, also started to spot a dropped coin or two near her. We both began looking for others and picking them up — not talking, not making eye contact, careful not to stray into each other's personal space.

The three of us continued moving slowly down the wide sidewalk, the shabby woman and I seeing shiny nickels, dimes, and quarters here and there — sometimes on the sidewalk, sometimes in the dirt off the sidewalk's edge, toward the houses that were close to the street, as they often are in older cities. We collected them with quiet eagerness.

Why did I decline to pocket this dropped coin?
Suddenly the woman said, "There's a penny." It lay on the ground about equidistant between us. With a gentle wave of her hand, she seemed to be suggesting that it was mine.

I waved her off. "No, not worth it," I said. So she bent down to get the penny, putting it in her pocket.

I thought to myself: That could have been my lucky penny.

What was I feeling?

1) Immediate regret that I didn't accept her invitation to pick up the penny, if only to honor the folk wisdom that finding a lost penny brings good luck.

2) Rationalization of my dismissive response by pretending that I was being magnanimous: Now it's her lucky penny, and she looks like she could use some good luck.

3) Annoyance that while I was comfortable with an unspoken barrier between us, she had suddenly put us on an equal footing as players in the game of finding lost coins. Moreover, she was hinting that a penny might be more acceptable to me than to her, of all people.

4) Upset at her notion of fairness in introducing a "rule" that any coin spotted between us could be offered to the other, whereas I was playing to pick up any coin I found first, though without violating her space. Why wasn't she sticking to that? It was her duty to take that penny!

5) Indignation, derived from  points 3 and 4, that she had violated my implicit understanding that she and I occupied different stations in life, and that her failure to acknowledge this was offensive, justifying my terse reply: "No, not worth it," implying "Pennies are for such as you, not me. Can't you see that?"

6) Embarrassment, as my friend, off to my left and slightly behind me, said nothing the whole time and as far as I could tell was not interested in looking for coins on the ground. This person represented obliviousness to the poor woman, which I was unable to sustain; such aloofness could have also hinted at contempt for my focusing on such an unworthy activity rather than just enjoying a pleasant stroll.

By now you have figured out this was a dream, which I have faithfully recorded here. It ended after the thought: That could have been my lucky penny. The numbered interpretations are the product of my waking life. They tumbled into my mind immediately upon waking up.

Events have consequences in our waking lives. They came from somewhere and they are leading toward something else. Analysis of those events is an indelible part of being awake and aware.

There are plot lines in daily life; dreams are thin on plot. Cause and effect within dreams don't often connect very well. Because of that, I don't think I've ever had to make a moral decision in a dream. "In dreams begin responsibilities," ran Delmore Schwartz's formulation in a famous short story. But responsibilities aren't taken up in dreamland. In waking life, they face us all the time. If we dodge them, we will know. Often, there will be an unwelcome price to pay.

There is plenty of significance in both spheres. In dreams, it lies in images, tableaus, scenarios. Why do dreams that entertain us in the telling often baffle us while we're dreaming them? Because they mock the mind's processing of what our lives mean. The narrative thread is usually fragile, confused. Yet the stamp of reality somehow persists in them.

 In our waking lives, we may not be sure what to do about a moral dilemma, but we are used to shouldering the responsibility to take action or say the right thing. We draw on a fund of knowledge about other people and about ourselves. If there's junk in that fund, life teaches us to sort it out and get rid of the rubbish.

But if we go to that resource in a dream, we often come up with nothing, or something bizarre. Treasure and trash are hopelessly mixed. Though our waking lives may be full of mystery as to what a given situation demands of us, we can at least look forward (occasionally with fear) to some kind of clarity in retrospect.

I may be teased into thought by a dream, but the work of thinking is a necessary part of the burden of consciousness. The lucky penny that could have been mine in the dream is — potentially and really — mine after I waken, if only as a symbolic token.

It takes the form of the opportunity to make the most of my luck by connecting one action to another, one encounter to the next, and perhaps one confrontation between spiritual and material poverty to the ones that will inevitably follow. Failing to learn from those encounters, to weave them into the fabric of my life, is what is "not worth it."

Saturday, March 14, 2015

ISO offers French music with a touch of grimace and flair, plus Brahms for sobriety, this weekend

With the noisy fun and games of Respighi's Feste Romane (Roman Festivals) still ringing the rafters of Hilbert Circle Theatre Friday night, the audience that gathered for the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra was soon treated to a more glowering uproar from Berlioz and Ravel.

The gargantuan Honor Orchestra of America, an annual ISO guest, had departed the stage shortly before Ludovic Morlot mounted the podium to conduct a half-French, half-German program — a replacement for the Elgar-centered original one, from which indisposed ISO conductor laureate Raymond Leppard was forced to withdraw.

Ludovic Morlot has brought the buzz back in Seattle.
Morlot, music director of the Seattle Symphony, was just mentioned in a speculative New York Times piece as a dark-horse candidate to succeed Alan Gilbert at the artistic helm of the New York Philharmonic. The 41-year-old Lyon native is known in Seattle for his crossover enthusiasm, including the 2011 innovation of Sonic Evolution. That series came to national attention a couple of years ago when rapper Sir Mix-A-Lot emceed an orchestral update of his "Baby Got Back," featuring extensive onstage booty-shaking by audience volunteers. (At the time, I thought it was the end of symphonic music as we know it. I was wrong.)

Things were not exactly sedate in the first half of Morlot's engagement here, though more within the symphony-orchestra universe. He opened with Berlioz's deliberately menacing Overture to "Les Francs-Juges," the only surviving remnant of the Romantic firebrand's  first attempt to enter the world of French opera. It's a splendid, eccentric piece — notable for its weighty brass statements, anchored to a foundation of two tubas. The composer preferred ophicleides, and his memoirs are peppered with complaints that the instrument was almost never to be found in orchestras outside France. Those bass keyed bugles are extant only in museums now.

The overture's lyrical contrasts appear to plead ineffectually against the judgments of the medieval German tribunal around which the opera's action swirls. Morlot drew a properly invigorated account from an orchestra for which this composer was almost a specialty under the music directorship of John Nelson (1976-1987). Here, the burgeoning Berlioz fashions a kind of rough unity out of disparate elements in unique, surprising ways, reminding me of Wynton Marsalis' comment in an interview that everyone in music derives from somebody else — "except Berlioz, man!"

Bertrand Chamayou displayed his mastery of left-hand Ravel.
Morlot welcomed his younger countryman Bertrand Chamayou to the stage for another fitfully gloomy work, Ravel's  Concerto in D major for Piano (Left Hand Alone) and Orchestra.  The solo instrument's entrance after an orchestral introduction full of foreboding — conspicuous Friday for Mark Ortwein's boldly stated contrabassoon solo — was spectacular.

Pianists need shrewd control of the pedal to build sonorities that sometimes seem enough work for two busy pianists. Chamayou was apt for the task.  The thundering cadenza, with its recollection of that initial foreboding, was properly climactic, setting up the swift collective slammed doors of one of the French composer's darker works.

It was ironic that this week's ISO player showcased in the post-intermission video is principal oboist Jennifer Christen, who was out sick and not able to play the brief, lovely oboe solos in the third movement of Brahms' Symphony No. 1 in C minor. In any event, that movement was the least satisfactory in this performance, insofar as it needed more breathing room. Morlot, who seems to favor lots of sostenuto playing, not just where the score indicates it, fashioned an overupholstered account of this daintily designated "Un poco allegretto e grazioso."

Otherwise, this was a fine representation of the work.  The first movement, with no exposition repeat, swept everything up grandly in those gestures by which the late-blooming symphonist announced his arrival in the genre. It led naturally to a second movement that offered a smooth, shapely respite, capped by concertmaster Zach De Pue's superb soloing near the end.

In the finale, plasticity returned after the smothering third-movement display. The movement's long introduction was marked by a particularly assertive performance of that wonderful horn call, which seems to speak so authoritatively of open vistas that it was folded into the soundtrack of an episode on the old "Bonanza" TV series,  in which Hoss Cartwright gazes out from a butte. Or maybe it was a mesa. Dr. Johannes Brahms in the Old West — what an image!

The broad tune that provides the movement's main substance was warmly rendered. Famously, it reminded so many of the symphony's first listeners of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" theme that Brahms expressed open annoyance. It occurred to me in the stirring rendition Friday night of the movement's climactic passages that the way Brahms abandons this melody instead of fashioning an apotheosis from it was to show how definitively he had escaped his titan predecessor's shadow. "See, I can honor the master with a good melody that will remind my audiences of him," Brahms seems to say,  "then set all that aside to indicate I have plenty to say on my own. I'm free!"

Friday, March 13, 2015

Given jazz's market irrelevance, what is underground about 'Brooklyn Jazz Underground'?

They're prolific, they're interconnected, and those who still buy and/or review jazz recordings quickly become familiar with the musicians represented on Brooklyn Jazz Underground CDs.

From Indiana, it's pretty hard to assess what kind of artistic community the label represents, but its first three releases of 2015 suggest that artistic independence may be a possible identifier of what's "underground" nowadays. These three releases are quite different from each other, but when the mainstream doesn't seem to have more viability than any other kind of jazz, identifying and ranking subgenres may be a waste of time.

These are well-engineered recordings that make individualistic statements by the leaders, supported by compatible sidemen. I'm glad that none of them seeks to definitively answer the perpetual question "Where is jazz going?," which I hope is finally running out of steam as a productive line of inquiry.

One direction is represented by Jeremy Siskind's "Housewarming."  The pianist, who was a finalist in
Pianist-songwriter Jeremy Siskind
the 2007 Jazz Fellowship Awards of the American Pianists Association, has recently developed a style of warmhearted lyricism. He favors melody, and his sort of elaboration of the basic material (most of it original work) is restrained and carefully cultivated. He's got imagination, however, and his playing is significantly beyond the piano-bar norm.

"Housewarming" dispenses with drumming, an eyebrow-raising choice for an ensemble program. Solo and duo recordings without percussion are not uncommon, and of course the kind of trio pioneered by Nat "King" Cole — piano, bass, guitar — has a firm niche in jazz history.

The disc features a distinctive trio combination of vocals, reeds, and piano. Nancy Harms and Lucas Pino are Siskind's principal collaborators. Other vocalists make cameo appearances: Kendra Shank, Peter Eldridge, and Kurt Elling. (Elling holds the attention best among the bit parts, though Eldridge's rendition of the title song, accompanied only by Siskind, doesn't overplay its sentimentality.)

"Housewarming" is essentially a jazz-inflected singer-songwriter disc — except the songwriter is not also the singer. Siskind's introspective tunes are well-matched to his lyrics. Harms' voice begs to be taken seriously in part because of the intimacy and warmth of the composer's texts. She's well suited to fulfillment of his artistic vision.

 But the pleasant upshot — despite the spice lent to the texture by the versatile woodwind player Pino — is a kind of easy-listening jazz, the sort you might expect to find featured at Starbucks and available for purchase at the counter. If this disc grows on its purchasers, it will have to be because they put aside the idea that it should accompany doing something other than just listening to it. That won't be easy.

Marike van Dijk's writing is praised (?) as "just another step."
On the jacket of "The Stereography Project," Marike van Dijk's writing is praised as "organic" by the eminent keyboardist Gil Goldstein. There's a couple of pencil drawings of a potted plant on the jacket to reinforce the point.

Everything coheres, to be sure, in the oeuvre of the Dutch saxophonist-composer, now part of the Brooklyn scene. She supplements an adept quartet of wind players (including Pino, by the way) with a string quartet and a rhythm section, plus cameos by three vocalists. Of course, you can be "organic" about integrating your performing forces and still lack discipline. Van Dijk's muse is rather untidy and wan, and I lost patience with her well before the closer, the dithering, sentimental "Walsje," for which the credits include two other composers besides the bandleader.

Two of the vocalists are featured on the only song from outside van Dijk's orbit: the Beatles' "She's Leaving Home." Her intriguing arrangement is marred by some suspect vocal intonation and the tendency of the lead singer to drop "g's". This doesn't seem to be the type of song you should do that to: "She's leavin' home"?

Alex Norris: Bringing it, keeping it real.
Incidentally, part of the Goldstein blurb deserves inclusion in my personal anthology of Damning with Faint Praise: "This record will be just another step in a long career of composing." I guess van Dijk can take that to the bank, for what it's worth.

I turn with relief  to "Extension Deadline" by the Alex Norris Organ Quartet. This is the kind of jazz that gives me hope.  It's solid stuff from stem to stern. If I were fond of tired labels, I'd call it post-bop. Norris' compositions often seem rudimentary, but they are good rudiments.  They open up wide spaces for improvisation, as well as for spontaneous mutual support in the ensemble.

Norris's trumpet and flugelhorn are agile, and his tone has sort of a matte finish, which contrasts nicely with the glow and flash of Gary Thomas' tenor saxophone. Whenever one of them yields to the other for a solo, there's an immediate jump in excitement — two independent minds with plenty to say without straying off topic.

George Colligan fuses the horn statements with masterly accompaniments, and goes out on his own with a Hammond A-100 sound free of funky cliches. Rudy Royston drives everything with relevance and infectious joy from the drum set; he's one of those busy drummers who intuitively avoid dominating, confident in the buoyancy of the music he propels.

All of these directions in jazz help make up the direction jazz is going. And without wide public interest in any of it, artists grouped under the Brooklyn Jazz Underground rubric have as good a chance as anybody to influence what the mainstream will do next.

Whatever that is, it's unlikely to move the needle on any pop-culture measurement device. In the second decade of jazz's second century, that's a situation we all have to get used to — whether we see ourselves as underground, on the ground, or building castles in the air.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

2010 silver medalist Soyoung Yoon returns for an IVCI recital

So-Young Yoon played with understanding, emotional commitment.
A sure sense of style both musical and sartorial accompanied Soyoung Yoon's return to an Indianapolis stage Tuesday night.

The South Korean violinist, now first concertmaster of the Basel (Switzerland) Symphony Orchestra, won the silver medal in the 2010 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis. IVCI engaged her in its current Laureate Series at the Indiana History Center's Basile Theater.

In the first half of her recital with Chih-Yi Chen at the piano, Yoon wore a dark dress with abundant silver glitter, as if to indicate both the virtuoso demands and the serious business of works by Giuseppe Tartini and Sergei Prokofiev. After intermission, she returned in a less glittery dress dominated by swirling red figures against black; that choice communicated both the more relaxed nature of one of the pieces (Johannes Brahms' Sonata No. 2 in A major, op. 100) and the impassioned gypsy character of the other (Maurice Ravel's "Tzigane.")

The legend behind Tartini's "Devil's Trill" Sonata places it among the tantalizingly dream-connected works of art, matched in another genre by S.T. Coleridge's poem "Kubla Khan." An attempt to render a vivid, creative dream lies behind each work, with the extra frisson of satanic inspiration in the Tartini case. Both authors conceded the triggering dream was better than what they were able to set down on paper.

Yoon played the sonata with the surging intensity it deserves. Chen's largely chordal accompaniment, suspended near the end to give way for a spellbinding violin cadenza, suited the violinist's attention to dynamics. The first onslaught of trills at "Allegro energico" could have used a slightly slower tempo to allow their bite to be felt more. Otherwise, everything was superbly judged, crowned by Yoon's splendid account of the cadenza.

Prokofiev's Sonata No. 1 in F minor, op. 80, his most tragic work, was met on its own bleak terms by the Chen-Yoon partnership.  Yoon showed off her 1773 Guadagnini instrument's most plangent tone in the low-register opening.  The "Allegro brusco" movement that followed could hardly have been more bracing, even disturbing, in its slashing chords and ringing octaves. With this sort of all-out playing at one end of the spectrum, Yoon and Chen made the most of the brief respite that the "Andante" movement offers at the other — gracefully phrased, introspective.  The finale was well-knit, with its flowing phrases suggesting the possibility of an uneasy calm that feels more like resignation.

The Brahms sonata is a genial work that emphasized solid, straightforward expressivity. The middle movement was charming and flexibly managed. The graceful finale drew polished playing from both musicians. With "Tzigane," the partnership was tested and came through swimmingly. Tempo changes were alertly coordinated, with the frequent instructions to accelerate, then to pull back a little, then to accelerate again scrupulously carried out.  The hectic concluding measures glowed a fiery red, as if to complement Yoon's "Tzigane dress."

The players offered Tchaikovsky's "Valse sentimentale" as an encore more than adequate to restore peace and confirm their mastery.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Icarus Ensemble nails down its niche on the local jazz scene with its first CD release

Mark Ortwein, Peter Hansen, Dean Franke, Gary Walters, and Jon Crabiel constitute Icarus Ensemble.
It's heartening to hear how so much potential has borne fruit in the development of an unusual  local band called the Icarus Ensemble. Seven years after its founding, it's an expert collaboration  of three Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra musicians and two members of the Butler University music faculty.

Nearly two years ago, I reported in one of my early blog posts how firm a grasp the quintet had on its musical vision and how well the musicians seemed to be suited to fulfilling it. They have since come up with a "book" dependably showcasing the versatile front line of violinist Dean Franke and multi-instrumentalist Mark Ortwein, whom you'll hear on bass clarinet, soprano saxophone, or electric bassoon depending on the piece. The rhythm section acts well as a unit, yet is often conspicuous in the texture for the individuality of each member.

Sunday night Icarus Ensemble released its self-titled recording debut at the Jazz Kitchen. I was unable to attend this reportedly triumphant event, but if it merely put the cap of concert performance upon the repertoire captured on this disc, it couldn't have been more successful.

Well-distributed compositional skills are evident, and a strong feeling for balance comes through without fail. Impeccably recorded at a couple of Bloomington-area studios, "Icarus Ensemble" displays the solo inventiveness of the players, nestled in an approachable, never needlessly complex  layering of instrumental lines in the ensemble. Nowhere is that more joyfully exhibited than in the disc's concluding track,"Circle Dance," written by founding member and bassist Peter Hansen. As in the other tunes, an animated, timbrally sensitive pulse emanates from Jon Crabiel's percussion.

Infectious exuberance is evident throughout the program, starting with pianist Gary Walters' catchy "IzzyBaby."  The compositions, without getting too fancy about it, find attractive ways not to fall into the head-solos-head rut. I liked the imaginative layout of Hansen's "Merry Go Round" and reedman Mark Ortwein's "Schizoid" in particular.  Throughout the disc, Ortwein injects his full-hearted freedom from cliche into solos on all  three of his instruments.

I also liked "Homage" for its evocative piano and soprano sax solos and the concise "Buffalo Shuffalo" for its edgy introduction and the unison oomph of bass clarinet and arco bass in the theme.

"Icarus Ensemble" is strong enough to represent the group well for some time to come as a fan souvenir of the many concert appearances it deserves to play — subject to the demands of each man's schedule outside the band.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

They don't know much about friendship, but they know what they like: Carmel Theatre Company presents Yazmina Reza's "Art"

Evan, Marc and Serge weigh their responses to a painting — and to one another — in Carmel Theatre Company's "Art."
If we didn't need validation, we wouldn't need either art or friends. But in Yazmina Reza's "Art," the indelible human appetite for all three becomes entangled — with results both funny and sad.

Midway through a nine-performance run when seen Saturday night, the Carmel Theatre Company production gets all the details right in presenting this intricate tussle among three Parisian buddies.

The trigger in the crisis between Marc and Serge, played with well-calibrated tension by Larry Adams and Daniel Shock, respectively, is Serge's purchase of a painting by a fashionable artist for 200,000 francs.

The playwright has thus brought to bear upon the conflict two major causes of the way human beings separate themselves from others: wealth and prestige.  But there is another element in the rift that trumps everything: The expensive art is a white-on-white painting that brings to the fore differences between the two old friends on all matters of value. What you see is not what you get, necessarily.

One measure of the strength of our friendships is the degree to which we share value.  Some amount  of sharing seems to be necessary, because we look to our friends for validation of who we are.  Their judgments on what we like — even if apparently not essential to the friendship — may give us either confirming or shattering information. In the latter case, there is much pain: We would just as soon keep unresolved issues about our identity to ourselves.

The deeper psychological level is exposed when a crisis involving the third friend, Evan, emerges. Played with winning intensity and vulnerability by Clay Mabbitt, Evan is insecure professionally and personally. About to get married and adjusting to a new job he has no positive feeling for, Evan cannot make strong enough use of his basic likability to avoid being victimized by Serge and Marc's spat.

Reza's main insight, nicely massaged to a tingle under Ken Klingenmeier's direction, is that a personality seen as neutral, and even potentially helpful, in a dispute between friends may rub them the wrong way and worsen the problem. As becomes clear in the course of a contentious evening in Serge's apartment, Evan is pressed into service as the whipping boy for both combatants.

The course of this serious business is strewn with humor. The production plays skillfully upon the audience's sense of the ridiculous. The men analyze minutely what each other is saying, using  their tortured interpretations as weapons in the struggle. Old memories are dredged up in support. Tone of voice is scrutinized mercilessly. Their tastes in women and their sense of propriety are mutually assailed. Aesthetics become almost a side issue. The white-on-white painting turns symbolically into a space through which everything, as well as nothing, may pass.

"Art" is quite talky, but the actors' movement about the shallow stage keeps the show from seeming static. There are rushed speeches and deliberate ones spread across a wide spectrum of expression. The relentless rhythm of this three-way quarrel perks you up slightly more than it wears you down.

Reza is fond of probing  the potential importance of events that are on some level trivial — like the playground dispute that lights a fuse under modern parenting in "God of Carnage." This production takes her project seriously — a considerable challenge, as the playwright's manner is both realistic and fanciful.

Particularly with "Art," one may be tempted to ask whether male quarrels — at least among straight American men — ever play out like this. Many men will walk away from endangered friendships well before they are forced to dig up the emotional Astroturf.  This play invites us to admit that true friendship may be better tested by slogging through its worst trials than  by simply "moving on" and nursing our wounds in stoical privacy.

Our perceptions may vary from our friends', but perhaps what we learn is what we get. Why avoid that?  How many chances do we expect to have anyway?