Tuesday, June 30, 2015

My soundtrack in the aftermath of Obergefell v. Hodges: two recordings of Elliott Carter's Double Concerto

Elsewhere I have expressed my dismay that the Supreme Court last Friday leaped into settling a question that ought to have been resolved among the voters and their elected representatives. Despite that, the Obergefell v. Hodges decision holds out the promise of a society I will be happier to live in.

In contemplating the future, in which committed same-sex relationships (one of them close to me, and of 35 years' standing) will have legal sanction, a fascinating sidebar in the New York Times' coverage was a feature on how gay culture will have to change, perhaps in ways that are poignant and a little alarming to those within it.

It's not my place to assess the potential for stress on the social bonds within the gay community, once same-sex marriage goes mainstream. But the situation reminds me, looking on as a sympathetic outsider, of similar stresses that threatened social cohesion among African-Americans with the decline of segregation (still in many ways a de facto reality).

It might not resonate with most people interested in the fallout from Obergefell that I have found a musical analogue to the post-Obergefell interaction of gay and straight culture: Elliott Carter's Double Concerto for Harpsichord and Piano with Two Chamber Orchestras. But I will forge ahead anyway, realizing that my interpretation is a peculiar overlay on a 1961 composition with no implicit or explicit connection to homosexuality and its struggle for respect from the heterocentric mainstream.

Carter's procedure in this work is to assemble a "world" around the polarity of two solo instruments — harpsichord and piano — each of which is accompanied by a small band that flavors, develops and extends the material peculiar to each soloist. It is significant that the two solo instruments are by nature the most vividly contrasted; the constituents of the ensemble each one leads have relatives on the other side [see chart above]. Symbolically, I see this as indicating the manifold parallels and similarities both communities share, helping to reconcile the core dissimilarity of sexual orientation.

There are flashes of incompatibility that become quite intense, but also absorbing interactions and sensitive responses that, in our post-Obergefell environment, I choose to think of as a harbinger of long-lasting harmony between the two cultures. In many parts of American society, of course, especially the arts, this harmony has largely been achieved. Marriage equality, now the law of the land, represents the huge advance to come on the rapport already evident to many Americans.

The delicate cover of the first recording of the Carter Double Concerto
Carter (1908-2012), in the long major phase of his output, conceived his works as scenarios for musicians displaying in abstract terms the jostling for identity and mastery characteristic of human society. He didn't sentimentalize such conflict or get theatrical about it. The Double Concerto places the ensembles carefully, so that the two groupings are plainly evident.

But this serves the purpose of making the musical separation and its occasional abrasiveness clear. There are no costumes or props, no histrionic gestures. These aren't ignorant armies that clash by night (to borrow Matthew Arnold's phrase in another context), but knowledgeable teams that follow through creatively on the implications of the resources they have been given.

I have two recordings of the work, one (on Columbia) played by the English Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Frederik Prausnitz; Paul Jacobs (harpsichord) and Charles Rosen (piano) are the soloists. A later one (Nonesuch has the Contemporary Chamber Ensemble, conducted by Arthur Weisberg, with Jacobs back as harpsichordist and Gilbert Kalish at the piano.

 If I had to characterize them in a thumbnail manner, I'd say the English performance is a more Apollonian interpretation, the American one more Dionysian. Tensions are poised in the Columbia recording; the central Adagio is a beautiful plateau on which each side assesses the opposite camp and negotiates a way forward. The American performance is better recorded, which perhaps gives it the edge in vividness and suggests a Romantic afflatus behind Carter's severe-sounding modernism.

Carter's stated inspiration, typical of him in the breadth of his cultural interests, is extensively described in his program note to the Columbia recording, but minimized in what he wrote for the Nonesuch jacket.  The generative literary works for the Double Concerto are the Latin poet Lucretius' "Of the Nature of Things" and Alexander Pope's "Dunciad."

The former work is speculative physics in verse, setting forth an atomic theory of matter that Carter found attractive in generating his piece from the onrush of percussion with which it opens. "The Dunciad," on the other hand, comes from a more complex society, at home with irony and more technically advanced, in which the social world is constructed from the "atoms" of individual behavior, in this case viewed satirically. Carter uses this as his cue to eventually disassemble the sound-world the two solo instruments and their colleagues have created, "unmaking" the foregoing procedure and fading rather quickly into nothingness. Pope's "Dunciad" ends similarly, though with a unique blend of grandeur and mockery.

A guide for the perplexed: Elliott Carter in his long-running old age
Now, how can my optimistic view of the gay-straight rapprochement possibly be apt for such a scenario, which seems to result in a sophisticated shoulder-shrug?  In this way: The process that Carter has set down in detail can be interpreted as a social phenomenon no less essential for being transitory. Ever averse to traditional musical rhetoric, Carter blithely skips out of his intricate scenario at the end — not tragically, cynically or resignedly, but pretty much with the attitude: Wasn't that fun while it lasted?

That's the kind of fun we will pass through in America as we get used to each other in new ways. We will come out on the other side with something it would be naive to be grandiose about. It will simply be life — more broadly conceived, more graciously lived, with a more inclusive sense of ordinariness. New materials will be assembled to provide ever-new syntheses.

The adventure that awaits is adumbrated brilliantly in this permanent work of art. We may all be post-modernists now, but — in Carter's Double Concerto — it remains clear that High Modernism lives!

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Friday night's other classical music being wiped out by rain, Early Music Festival concert with Aeris moved front and center

The Indianapolis Early Music Festival took a "Roman holiday" on a rain-soaked central Indiana evening Friday, welcoming the baroque trio Aeris (with guests Charles Weaver, guitar and chitarrone, and Nell Snaidas, soprano) for a program of Handel "the Wanderer" and some Italian contemporaries  with one close predecessor. (Bad weather had led the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra to cancel its Symphony on the Prairie concert; the program is scheduled to be performed tonight.)

Aeris is focused on music of the Italian baroque.
The New York trio specializes in the Italian baroque, with its florid and moody inspiration and its vivid melodic and rhythmic character.  It's not hard to see how this sort of music stirred the young Handel, who went on to flourish in Italian opera (staged in England) and English oratorios. America's "Messiah" mania has tended to obscure the breadth of this achievement, but in recent years more attention has been paid to a few other oratorios and the Anglicized Saxon's operas (Opera Theatre of Saint Louis' 2015 production of "Richard the Lionheart" coming to mind).

So, the centerpiece of Friday's program was the cantata Dietro l'orme fuggaci, "Armida abbandonata," a quasi-dramatic teeter-totter of recitative and aria — seven parts in all.

Nell Snaidas came through, despite a recent vocal crisis.
Artistic director Mark Cudek announced beforehand that Snaidas had just come through a bad patch of voice trouble. Her appearance as soloist in this cantata and, after intermission, shorter works by Handel and Alessandro Stradella (the close predecessor mentioned above) was gratifying under such conditions. It wasn't hard to notice some loss of color in phrasing; the bloom was definitely off the tonal rose. But Snaidas' technique was secure and her expressiveness just about all that we have come to expect from her previous festival appearances.

Aspects of the later Handel were burgeoning in Dietro l'orme fuggaci. There is his instinctive skill for boosting the dramatic impact of a vocal line in the accompaniment without its getting in the way, for example. There is also the impact he often created out of vigorous instrumental/vocal partnership in the subgenre of the "rage aria."

 The emotion of "Winds, stay! No, do not drown him! It is true that he has betrayed me, but still I love him!" may not be rage, exactly, but Armida's desperate appeal, practically a command, comes close. And this aria was a highlight of Friday's performance.

Leader Avi Stein's playing was buoyant and precise throughout, and cellist William Skeen consistently displayed beautiful, rounded phrasing. Tempo coordination within the trio was unfailing.

Weaver added rhythmic elan on baroque guitar in a chaconne by Nicola Matteis, who like Handel, was to make much of his career in England. This piece made a great conclusion to the concert's first half, thanks to the lively, well-turned virtuosity of Zachary Carrettin.

Based on his account of a sonata by the prolific Francesco Maria Veracini, Carrettin's manner of playing baroque violin and the pastel timbre he gets from it will be contrasted at the end of the festival with the appearance of Rachel Barton Pine, who has just issued with Trio Settecento the complete Veracini Op. 2 sonatas on three discs. Her tone in this set is more assertive and brighter; there will be no Veracini in her two concerts here, but comparisons to Carrettin should offer fascinating insights into the interpretive breadth with which Roman chamber music of almost 300 years ago can be represented today.

Friday, June 26, 2015

The American Civil War: fact or fiction?

News item: Apple withdraws Civil War games from sale over Confederate flag sensitivity. http://toucharcade.com/…/06/25/apple-removes-confederate-f…/

Photograph of Abraham Lincoln late in life shows the strain on him of having to pretend there was a Civil War going on.

Hoople, ND -- Apple's decision to pull Civil War games from online availability turns out to have
better historical grounding than it may appear, according to a couple of historians on the faculty of the University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople. 

The two professors have concluded after years of exhaustive research that the American Civil War in fact never took place. Astonished by this revelation, I spoke to the scholars -- Wright S. Raine and Ambrose Truelove -- by phone earlier today.

"Professor Raine," I began, "how can you possibly overturn decades of scholarship, including an abundance of primary documents and photographs, that seem to assert the horrible reality of the Civil War?"

"We realize there will be massive resistance to our conclusion," Raine replied, "but we're confident that looking in a new way at the evidence to which you allude is supported by the facts."

"The mythification of the Civil War has gone on for long enough," Truelove added. "An entire industry, based both in academia and the outside world, is entrenched and can be expected to be fiercely loyal to the conventional narrative."

"Well, why not?" I suggested. "How do you otherwise explain what appears to be the greatest existential crisis in American history?"

"War games, basically," Raine said quickly. "It was an elaborate scheme to speed recovery from the Panic of 1837. Thousands of idle young men had to be usefully occupied. Ineffectual presidents were unable to put the plan into play until Abe Lincoln came along."

"He was like Cecil B. DeMille on steroids," said Truelove admiringly, alluding to the legendary
Hollywood director known for his casts of thousands.

"Still, it doesn't seem one man, no matter how extraordinary, could mastermind such a colossal deception," I said skeptically. "And what about slavery, which we've come to understand was the essential cause of the Civil War?"

"All part of the illusion," Truelove explains. "An added touch of color, if you'll pardon the expression. Those incorrectly labeled slaves were actually African tourists, eager to sample life in this new country -- the hope of the world -- and given such memorable experiences they decided to stay. Their time in the game was often painfully realistic, to be sure, but they appreciated the authenticity."

"Sort of like the dude-ranch idea, then?" I asked. "Like when city slickers wanted to see what the cowboy life would feel like?"
"Exactly!" the professors said in unison.

"Well, you gentlemen have certainly upset a lot of apple carts here!" I exclaimed. "This should really reduce the appeal of visiting Civil War battlefields, for instance."

"Not at all," Raine retorted. "Each one is like a stage set. And Americans love theme parks. This could put new life into their preservation; our findings have great commercial potential."

"Just consider," Truelove interjected, "our research has made those noisy, smoky, fake-casualty Civil War reenactments closer than ever to what really happened."
"That's right," Raine said with enthusiasm. "And beyond those hobbyists and buffs, our findings should give Americans a great sense of relief."

I was puzzled. "Relief? How do you mean?"

Raine was  ready as usual: "Americans have a rock-solid belief that they're different. Our discoveries about the Civil War mean they no longer need to endure the knowledge that their beloved nation went through four years of divisive, nearly terminal bloodshed over an institution that made millions of people property, deprived of liberty and subject to horrific abuse."

Truelove chimed in: "Precisely! By looking at the evidence more closely, we have reinforced the doctrine of American exceptionalism. How could Ronald Reagan's idea of 'the city on a hill' be valid if the Civil War, slavery and racism, quarrels over the Confederate flag and all that had a genuine historical basis? Our work -- and it hasn't been easy -- will let Americans feel good about themselves again."

"Well, maybe," I said doubtfully. "But there's always the Indian wars."

There was a pause at the other end of the line. "Indian wars?" said Prof. Truelove. "Do you know what he's talking about, Wright?"

"Vaguely," Raine said softly. "And I think I have an idea for our next project. We better get to work. Nice talking to you."

They hung up quickly. I was unable to thank them for the opportunity they had given me to point the way toward their next breakthrough.

[appicon]If you've been watching the news recently, you'll know of the huge debate in the U.S over the role of the Confederate flag in contemporary America. Many...

Lunch Break series at Hilbert Circle Theatre gives downtowners 40 minutes of effulgent Tchaikovsky

Guest conductor Fawzi Haimor was born in Chicago.
The tempestuous virtuosity of Armenian pianist Nareh Arghamanyan held an Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra audience spellbound Thursday afternoon as the second annual  "Lunch Break" series, now expanded to six concerts, presented some familiar Tchaikovsky to music-lovers in Hilbert Circle Theatre.

Fawzi Haimor, resident conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, was on the podium for the second concert in the series. Both guest artists will appear in two Symphony on the Prairie concerts this weekend, collaborating on the same work. In addition, the Mussorgsky-Ravel "Pictures at an Exhibition" will be performed under Haimor's direction.

Nareh Arghamanyan put her stamp on Tchaikovsky.
The sole "Lunch Break" piece was everybody's favorite Russian composer's Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor. It was a warhorse long before Van Cliburn made it even better-known after his competition triumph in Moscow nearly six decades ago yielded the first classical recording to go platinum.

Arghamanyan, a powerful  26-year-old who nestled some fine lyrical ideas amid this work's ample display of bravura, worked well with Haimor. After the first-movement cadenza, for instance, pianist and orchestra set up a nicely coordinated flow that churned animatedly up to the final double barline. Inevitably, sustained applause followed.

In the outer movements, there were passages that sounded overpedaled, usually when chordal fury was at its most intense. But the feverish elements were mostly under control, and were lent enough variation in mood to make Arghamanyan's performance enthralling. Today's standard of virtuosity is so high that it was a mite surprising to hear finger faults in the introduction, though nothing that obscured the effect of its famous melody. That tune contributed long ago to the concerto's pre-Cliburn fame by being ripped off for a popular song, "Tonight We Love."

The finale showed Arghamanyan's rhythmic acuity and steely focus. She played with an urgency that was right on top of the beat. Her treatment of the yearning second theme complemented the full-bodied sound the violins dependably gave to it.  Similarly, the young pianist confirmed the tender lyricism of the ISO's solo flute, cello and oboe in the second movement's melting theme, which is pertly interrupted by a sprightly folk tune that came off in lively fashion Thursday.

Based on Thursday's warm-up, Symphony on the Prairie patrons can look forward to performances of a flashiness and an intensity well-suited to the expansive vistas of Conner Prairie.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

DM Jazz Eight works at finding a local niche for the little big band

DM Jazz Eight: Moving smartly into Rich Dole's arrangement of a Johnny Hodges number.
Hearing the first set of the eight-month-old ensemble co-led by Gene Markiewicz and Rich Dole Wednesday night offered indications of bright promise at the Jazz Kitchen.

The DM Jazz Eight is an octet (duh!) with this instrumentation: two saxes, two trumpets, one trombone, and the conventional rhythm section (piano, bass, drums). The band largely uses a book left by former Indianapolis valve-trombonist-bandleader Phil Allen, supplemented by several Dole arrangements.

I came in as the band was setting out with Duke Ellington's "In a Mellotone," creating a relaxed groove featuring something that immediately appealed to me: trumpeter Larry McWilliams plunger-soloing crisp phrases behind the ensemble.  He has the perfect instincts for this kind of texture, and something similar came through later as the band played Dole's arrangement of Johnny Hodges' "Fur Piece."  Another Hodges piece arranged by Dole, "Monkey on a Limb," displayed the balance and verve of the ensemble especially well.

Other members of the band besides the three already mentioned: trumpeter P.J. Yinger, saxophonists Jim Farrelly and Tom Meyer, bassist Fred Withrow, and (sitting in for regular Gary Walters), pianist Sean Baker. All soloed from time to time, and the solos were compact and often telling. The co-leaders had a few good displays; I particularly found Markiewicz a compelling percussionist in Latin rhythms: the Theme from "Black Orpheus" by Luis Bonfa and Sonny Rollins' "St. Thomas" were sufficient evidence Wednesday night.

Dole and Markiewicz told me during the break that they hope to keep the band going in various venues. They find educational work especially compatible. Club engagements in the area are pretty much restricted to the Kitchen (where they were appearing for the third time); the venerable Chatterbox Jazz Club downtown has too small a stage to accommodate eight players.

They told some amusing stories about mixed success in playing for dancers, who can be mighty particular. It's a tough gig for jazzmen; often the particular gift of the best Swing Era bands — almost a lost art now — was their ability to suit the tastes of both listeners and dancers. The best in the business, which  I was fortunate enough to hear once, was the Count Basie Band, fairly late in the leader's career. The venue, of the sort that once was the bread-and-butter of touring bands throughout the land, was a popular roadhouse/dancehall in Holly, Michigan, in the 1970s. I was on assignment from the Flint Journal.

Count Basie almost drummed me out of the press corps.
The Basie ensemble was essentially playing a dance gig, but (let me shout it) it was also COUNT BASIE AND HIS ORCHESTRA!  There was plenty to enjoy from the comfort of one's seat. Of course, the band, with the leader's understated prodding from the keyboard, unfailingly drew a crowd onto the dance floor; it was irresistible. Even my wife and I — inveterate non-dancers — got out there.

During the break the Count consented to a group press interview. And there I made my most embarrassing interview mistake ever. I forget the exact context, but in response to something Basie said, I brought up the name of Dickie Wells as though he was on the bandstand that night.

The Count looked at me levelly and said softly:  "You leave this interview right now." (Awkward pause.) "Dickie Wells hasn't been a member of this band since the 1940s. It's Al Grey now," he added, referring  to the trombonist who was doing great work with the growling, gutbucket, plunger-muted solos that Wells had long ago set the pattern for with Basie.

Incredibly, I didn't move. Was I paralyzed by fear, or was I calling the great Basie's bluff? What if I had exceeded the Count's unspoken time limit for following his instruction to leave?  He could have stood up and declared: "The interview's over." The eyes of my colleagues would have directed so many daggers at me I would have resembled a clothed St. Sebastian.

That didn't happen, fortunately.  My momentarily shaky knowledge of Basie history  — and my failure to leave — turned out not to be a fatal error. The Count graciously continued the interview, and (thankfully) didn't make a point of ignoring me.

Greatness tends to exist on more than one level.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Indianapolis Early Music Festival: A spirited 17th-century tour of two hemispheres' musical interaction by Ensemble Caprice

Cultural clashes often beget cultural amalgamation and new syntheses that are impossible to imagine without one cherished tradition rubbing up against another.

Montreal-based Ensemble Caprice is led by Matthias Maute (second from right).
Ensemble Caprice, a Montreal group led by charismatic recorder player Matthias Maute, explored the theme here Sunday with particular emphasis on the 16th- and 17th-century effects on European music of exposure to the New World. With the piquant title of "Salsa Baroque: Music of Latin America and Spain," the six musicians (including soprano guest Esteli Gomez) presented a smoothly integrated concert to a well-filled Basile Auditorium at the Indiana History Center. It was the second concert in the current Indianapolis Early Music Festival.

Maute wove a spoken narrative throughout the program. It had touches of poetry about it, asking the audience to imagine itself facing the adventure of travel to the New World at the dawn of European exploration, conquest, and settlement. The performance had begun with a gradual assembling of the ensemble onstage, starting with David Jacques, baroque guitar, in ¡Jacaras! with hand-clap punctuation by Susie Napper before she got to her cello.

Once all six musicians were onstage, the musical adventure began at the beginning of art music in this hemisphere, with a performance of a processional number, Hanacpachap cussicuinin — the first polyphonic piece published (1631, Peru) in the Americas, Maute's program note tells us. It was the first opportunity of several to appreciate Gomez's adept, glowing solo soprano.

Guest soprano soloist Esteli Gomez added much to Ensemble Caprice's program.
Another vocal outing followed after a few short instrumental pieces, in which the balance and vivid expressiveness of the ensemble could be appreciated. Maute and fellow flutist Sophie Lariviere took the sometimes intricate top lines with aplomb, supported by Jacques, Napper, and percussionist Ziya Tabassian. The soprano's second showcase was a nostalgic song, "Doulce memoire," that displayed her steady, crystal-clear tone and natural phrasing.

Every time she was involved in the concert, she lent a similar warmth and communicative power: In a lullaby in the Aztec language, in a "madness" duet with Maute coordinated from one side of the hall to the other, and in the finale, a Christmas jubilee characterized by well-blended African and European elements.

The ensemble did not seem unduly hampered by the absence of some percussion instruments in the first half. Drums that were essential toward the end of the program arrived late at the airport, and weren't available till after intermission, when they were brought onstage in a mock-processional. Domenico Zipoli's three pieces offering a depiction of battle — chosen to signify the conquest of Peru in 1532 under Francisco Pizarro — made stirring use of the tardily delivered percussion, expertly managed by Tabassian.

Attractive "theater" was present near the end, when Maute roamed the aisles carrying a lantern and singing in German (his native language) the song of a night watchman as one of a set of chaconne variations by the Austrian composer Heinrich Isaac.  It was done with flair and good taste, and underlined a point that seemed evident by concert end: Ensemble Caprice is not a band inclined to hide its light under a bushel. It places its artistry in a high position, where it gives light to the whole room.

Monday, June 15, 2015

EclecticPond's 'Cherry Orchard' blossoms at the Basile Opera Center

Americans who grew up in the mid- to late 20th century carried a fearful caricature of what Russia had become after social pressures of the 1800s gave birth, midwifed by war, to the global red menace of the Soviet Union.

Much of the discreet charm of Anton Chekhov's emerging bourgeoisie and beleaguered aristocracy foreshadows that cataclysm in muted terms. But it took the tolerant, observant temperament of the man Chekhov to produce a play like "The Cherry Orchard," not a convenient set of circumstances tracing the decline of the old order. Masterpieces aren't generated by either social change or the nature of language, despite what cultural theorists of various stripes tell us.

EclecticPond Theatre Company's production wisely senses how seamlessly Chekhov placed his awareness of a changing world in the personalities of his characters. As seen Sunday evening at the Basile Opera Center, the performance honored the short-lived Russian playwright's compassion and humor and his depiction of the self-serving energy with which people in the real world move and speak.

The focus in this instance is a country estate that has seen better days; its acclaimed cherry orchard has earned mention in an encyclopedia. The return of its weary mistress, temporarily revitalized but trailing family members and personal humiliation from Paris, bursts upon the opening scenes. Michael Hosp has directed his delightfully virtuosic cast with surefooted attention to the characters' jostling egos and their need to find peace and resolution in a world with a bottomless knack for thwarting both. Thirteen at table is conventionally bad luck, but this baker's dozen tosses around the eccentricities and dreams embedded in their roles with zestful control.

Firs the butler (James McNulty) muses on the end of a way of life.
Cain Hopkins' costume designs showed imagination and convincing authenticity. Jeff Martin's scenic design had the right notes of faded elegance, shrouded or wiped away by the doom implied in the last couple of scenes. His lighting, though its second-act fading made the aristocracy's twilight clear, obscured faces a little too much. Music and choreography appropriately fleshed out the culture of the rustic privileged. Dancing that opened Act 2 evoked the setting's accustomed pleasures sweetly and concisely.

Church acoustics presented a hearing challenge now and then, though the actors projected well. The action is smartly laid out across the wide playing area provided by the former sanctuary's chancel, with a kaleidoscopic focus on a wide center doorway, through which we glimpse (and overhear) the boundary between on- and offstage events.

The latter sphere is a specialty of Chekhov's genius, and allows speeches about the outside world to take over from time to time without feeling like padding. The businessman Lopakhin, played by Ryan Ruckman with the crisp focus of an up-and-comer, is naturally counterpointed to the idealistic perpetual student Petya (Benjamin Schuetz). Their mutual hostility was nicely defined Sunday; their awkwardness in romantic matters (paralytic in Lopakhin's case) was fun to watch in sympathy and amusement.

The older characters — topped by James McNulty's doddering portrayal of the estate's symbolically decrepit butler — have that striking blend of inflexibility and nostalgia that sometimes passes for wisdom. But the pose is hard to maintain, especially when the materfamilias Lyubov, plaintive yet somehow magisterial in Christa Shoot Grimmer's portrayal,  has so much to regret. She clings to a fatal generosity even in her impoverished state. It's part of her delusion of noblesse oblige in a world that the children of emancipated serfs like the ambitious Lopakhin will soon come to control, before they in their turn are overtaken by ideologues.

Lyubov's brother Leonid, his vision clouded by an internal verbal fog machine he can't turn off, was invested with imposing bluster and flickering self-insight by Bill Wilkison. Doug Powers as the neighboring landowner Semyonov-Pishchik, his fluttering hands in sync with an imploring stammer, displayed the effects of declining-upper-class begging on a weak personality.

I'm resisting a checklist style assessment of all 13 actors, but I want to mention the first-scene vigor injected by Marcy Thornsberry as the maid Dunyasha into a Chekhovian world that is sometimes superficially described as enervated. There's no lack of effervescence in "The Cherry Orchard," but it passes in and out of the scene like most of the thoughts and emotions experienced by ordinary people. No one expressed the comedy of all that better than Anton Chekhov. This production does that quality full justice.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Urbanski, the ISO, a solo quartet and chorus scale the heights of Beethoven four times to end Classical Series

Programming that for two weekends has concluded on the glorious heights of D major guarantees that bright key — especially in the giddy rush of the final measures in Mahler's Fifth Symphony and Beethoven's Ninth — a role in sending Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra audiences into the summer with happy memories.

Friday night's performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in D minor ("Choral") in a well-filled Hilbert Circle Theatre elicited a predictable shouting and standing ovation, but it was deserved in so many respects that it didn't seem automatic. The audience was clearly also in a mood to enjoy the 20-minute opener, Lutoslawski's Symphony No. 4, which presented the ISO in its most glittering aspect, nicely focused on compact, emotionally appealing music by the conductor's eminent countryman (1913-1994).

Krzysztof Urbanski: Tensile strength and insight in Beethoven
In the Beethoven, music director Krzysztof Urbanski  drew from the orchestra an immediate display of tensile strength: The first movement featured sharply defined rhythms and dramatic interplay of rising and falling lines. As the coda approached, the dialogue of woodwinds and strings was piquant and precise. Particularly gratifying was  the sound of massed lower strings, with the basses nestled in a bulge behind the violas and cellos — a harbinger of their unanimity in the insistent recitative passages that propel the first part of the finale.

The Scherzo was distinctive in the extra thrust of the timpani punctuation that gives the movement its character. After the second violins righted themselves in the repeat of the main section, all was in order. The Trio seemed to look back to the Pastoral Symphony (No. 6) and ahead to the open-hearted presentation of the "Ode to Joy" theme in the finale, and the Haydnesque burst of wit in the final measures was nicely turned.

Urbanski deserves special kudos for the way he kept the Adagio movement in constant motion. The music invites ponderous wallowing, but is more effective when its parade of colorful variations passes by with the naturalness of breathing. The second theme especially unfolded like a gentle exhalation.

The Indianapolis Symphonic Choir contributed its patented vigor and polish to the last movement. Its entrance was as dramatically set up as possible: Those cello-and-bass dismissals of the symphony's earlier music were particularly brusque and impatient; the baritone soloist, Daniel Okulitch, paused a few seconds after rising from his chair before launching into his stentorian "O Freunde...." When he introduced the famous tune, the only flaw was the disappearance of the word "geteilt" (parted, separated).

The rest of the quartet— soprano Aga Mikolaj, alto Abigail Nims, tenor Eric Barry — put rewarding effort into its role, especially in the outbursts near the end. One never expects a Ninth Symphony solo quartet to really blend, but that lies more in the nature of Beethoven's writing than any shortcoming among the four guest singers. Barry, accompanied by a marching-band variation, gave expansive, spread-armed heft to the tenor's solo stanza. His operatic flair served as a reminder that the source of Wagnerian tenorism, from Lohengrin through Tristan, lies in this stirring passage.

Eric Stark's scrupulous training of his chorus was remarkable in several ways. Diction is always clear; balance and tone are unshakable. He favors making the most of separating notes in a phrase if it emphasizes the meaning: "Und der Cherub steht vor Gott" (and the cherub stands before God) was sung as if to underscore the exalted unity of all creation celebrated in Friedrich Schiller's poem. He can get his singers to shout without coarsening the vocal texture: It was fun to be startled by the final word in "Ahnest du den Schoepfer, Welt?" as if the whole world's attention was being commanded in no uncertain terms.

A striking insight in Michael Steinberg's peerless essay on this symphony is that the Ninth "seeks to make an ethical statement as much as a musical one." The crux of the work's significance, mounting through portentousness, ferocity, and serenity toward a vision of human unity, has always felt to me like an unresolvable ethical challenge. Is the call to joy in all creation under a benevolent creator directed at us individually or collectively? Only one verse, it's true, addresses the individual search for joy — and it's conspicuously old-fashioned, pegging a man's happiness on finding a good woman.

Nonetheless, the statement Steinberg raises seems problematic: Is the idealism behind collectively feeling the joy of life a mite dangerous? In the case of Schiller's text, is this part of the forceful excesses of romantic aspiration that went astray in the last century in Austro-German culture, awaiting a charismatic leader who would interpret "die Welt" as "das Volk"? Are we better off seeking this joy individually as a liberation from the prison of this one body in this one life, or does it only make sense en masse?

I offer one coincidence to reflect upon as Beethoven's Ninth enters its 20th decade, as venerated as it was at its Vienna premiere. The translation of "Ode to Joy" printed in Steinberg's book ("The Symphony: A Listener's Guide") was commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under a gift from the First National Bank of Boston in 1978. The same year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the bank's favor  in First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, helping establish corporations' status as persons subject to First Amendment protection in the electoral process.

Familiar question: Is a corporation a person? And is happiness best conceived as something individuals can celebrate together as individuals, or is it meaningful only collectively? And should we worry when collective joy is considered the peak emotion of all, sanctified by God?

In signing onto the ethical ideal of the Ninth Symphony, maybe we need to spare more than a little sympathy for one "der stehl(t) weinend aus diesem Bund" (who steals from this company weeping).

[Photo credit: Lena Knutii]

Friday, June 12, 2015

Matthew Kraemer introduces himself as ICO music director to the community at large

Holliday Park was the setting for a light-classical concert Thursday night by the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra, which acquitted itself well despite scant rehearsal time under the baton of its new music director, Matthew Kraemer.

Indiana native Matthew Kraemer officially begins ICO duties in July.
Kraemer will be returning to a community he was well-acquainted with years ago as a Butler University student, graduating before advanced studies at the University of Nevada. He has recently held appointments with the Buffalo Symphony Orchestra (associate conductor) and, in northwestern Pennsylvania, the Erie Chamber Orchestra.

Conductors need to talk to audiences more than they used to — particularly in informal settings. On Thursday, Kraemer was good at that, keeping it light and not long-winded.  He was attentive to the orchestra's sound, and smartly saw the need for a tuning pause after Leroy Anderson's "Serenata."

He was not all about wowing the crowd in his selections. Subtle, mild-mannered pieces like the "Intermezzo" from Mendelssohn's "Midsummer Night's Dream" and Anderson's "Saraband" were put among familiar, tender-minded items like Grainger's "Irish Tune from County Derry" ("O Danny Boy") and the "Midsummer Night's Dream" Nocturne, featuring a warm French horn solo by Darin Sorley.

I didn't care for the arrangement of Gershwin's "Strike Up the Band," with its incongruous "Latin" episodes, but it contributed effectively to the peppy side of the program. Low-key pep opened the concert in Mozart's Overture to "The Marriage of Figaro." And pep at a more strenuous level (with stress for the ICO's two percussionists) concluded it: "Lord of the Dance" selections that had little kids throughout the audience getting into the dance spirit.

Pop-culture appropriation of classical melodies, alluded to in Kraemer's remarks, helped smooth the way for newcomers with the Toreador March from Bizet's "Carmen" and Brahms' Hungarian Dance No. 5 (paired with its neighbor, No. 6). The tempo changes in this folk-derived music were neatly managed. The upbeat mood intended by the ICO to sell itself to the general public was established by the curtain-raiser, the Overture to Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro," and was well-defined by the time Johann Strauss Jr.'s "Tritsch-Tratsch Polka" sent lots of coordinated zest into the warm evening air.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Terence Blanchard's E-Collective is a stretch that may be good for the protest side of jazz

The quintet that trumpeter Terence Blanchard now leads played the Jazz Kitchen Tuesday night, and it took some getting used to for fans most familiar with Blanchard's lyrical tendency as displayed in acoustic settings.

Jazz prides itself on never standing still, so I suppose my somewhat tepid response to the E-Collective (Blanchard, occasionally doubling on keyboard, plus guitar, electric bass, keyboards, and drums) can be chalked up to a bit of moldy-figgery.

Terence Blanchard E-Collective plays music from "Breathless."
I missed the songful Blanchard, master of smooth elisions through half-valving and sudden shadings of tone. He was always a trumpeter who could reach in a controlled manner for the upper reaches of pitch and volume, never sounding forced, and linking that sound to his gorgeous middle and lower registers.

For his first set at the Kitchen, Blanchard and his mates forged an uninterrupted set of just over an hour. I was reminded of a Miles Davis set I heard in Ann Arbor in the modern pioneer's initial electric era, when aggressiveness in thick textures was essential to a vibe that he had done so much to create.

Blanchard spoke only at the end, announcing that the music had come from "Breathless," the E-Collective's new CD, which memorializes in protest recent police-action killings of black men, especially the death by chokehold last summer of Eric Garner, whose last words were a repeated "I can't breathe."

Social consciousness, whatever the values it may uphold, can't provide sufficient justification for music, though it may stir the pot of creativity like nothing else from time to time. That said, this band is undeniably simpatico internally; but I'm not sure the topical side of Blanchard brings out his best music. Enthusiastic reception of his "A Tale of God's Will: A Requiem for Katrina"  no doubt encouraged him to press his muse into service further as the Black Lives Matter movement gathered steam. "Breathless" is the result.

Blanchard has been associated with the personnel of E-Collective for some time, with the apparent exception of young guitarist Charles Altura. The trumpeter went to school in his hometown of New Orleans with bassist Donald Ramsey, for example, and has used Cuban pianist Fabian Almazan for at least a half-decade. Drummer Oscar Seaton, sporting R&B and fusion credentials to burn,  is a colleague with years of Blanchard experience as well.

To me, plugged-in bands often sound infatuated with the ability to provide thick tapestries of sound. Individual quirkiness and personal style are flattened out for the sake of the ensemble. Phrasing often seems accidental. Crafting a solo is a matter of layering in a timbre that can be expanded or withdrawn at will.

Behind it all is a driving, essentially unvarying drum pattern. Tuesday night Seaton's pulse was steady but overwhelming; his playing with this band in a few YouTube excerpts I heard before the gig was more intricate and less explosive.  At the Jazz Kitchen, the bass drum was too loud, particularly at first, and throughout the set, pistol-shot snare-drum backbeats became wearying.

Blanchard the composer is still flexible enough — thanks in part to his extensive film-scoring experience —that the long set didn't lack variety. Angry slow blues themes were relieved by meditative episodes, and a very fast section featured a catchy set of figures for trumpet and guitar in unison. Almazan often specialized in the reflective end of the spectrum; Altura, in the frenetic — though his stage manner is refreshingly poker-faced, without the wincing and grimacing stereotypical of guitarists.

"Breathless" deserves a hearing, but one can only hope that Blanchard's refusal to stay in one place musically for long will allow him to play to his strengths once again. E-Collective has more limits than may seem apparent in the short term, when the heat of protest scorches just about everyone.

Monday, June 8, 2015

"Momentum 21" gives Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra a bold claim on the cultural present and future here

You can get a lot of insight into the open-ended stance of classical music in the early 21st century by listening to "Momentum 21" (Albany), a new compact disc issued to mark the conclusion of Kirk Trevor's long tenure as music director of the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra.

The disc is titled after the work that opens the program, "Triptych: Musical Momentum," by composer-in-residence James Aikman.  Recorded at the ICO's home concert hall, the Schrott Center for the Arts at Butler University, "Triptych" is an inviting showcase for the ICO and its rapport with Trevor.

Kirk Trevor adds a significant recording to a large discography.
The three-movement work opens with a driving Fanfare, which holds something in reserve despite its insistent rhythmic patterns. Wisps of woodwind play off the dominant rhythm, which is punctuated by a hammer hitting a 2-by-4, manned by the timpanist, who gets the composition's last word on his proper instrument. The middle movement, "The Particle Garden," uses a steady electronic track supplementing the orchestra to lend a misty "wash" effect ensemble, which gently opens avenues toward a plain-speaking clarinet, joined by horns and harp, in something resembling the Americanist idiom of Aaron Copland. The finale "String Fields," has the most complex texture, unostentatiously well-managed and not disruptive to the open-hearted expression characteristic of Aikman's muse.

Of the other works, I was particularly struck by the virtuosity of Martin Kuuskmann as soloist in Christopher Theofanidis' Bassoon Concerto, the oldest work on the program (2002).  There is virtuosity aplenty throughout its three movements. The striding self-assurance of the soloist, and the role he is required to play, dominate the first movement. "Oriental" figuration characterizes the bassoon role in the second movement, against the orchestra's meditative long-held notes. The perpetual-motion demands of the finale are smoothly handled by Kuuskmann, and the music's overall variety juxtaposes the ethereal and the earthy. With the bassoon topping and reconciling the wide range of orchestral sound, the piece fittingly ascends  to a high, serene ending.

Almost as enthralling is Derek Bermel's Ritornello: Concerto Grosso for Electric Guitar and String Orchestra, the disc's other concerto. It's got a nice formal shape and showcases effectively a rarely used solo-concerto instrument. The sonic palette is attractive, with only strings in accompaniment, and it's broadly idiomatic to Derek Johnson's command of the guitar. I haven't heard such a successful new "classical" composition inspired by electric guitar since Mark-Anthony Turnage's "Scorched" for John Scofield.

Indicating that modernism of an expressionist bent isn't dead yet, "Lady Dark," Michael-Thomas Foumai's well-appointed orchestral outline to the emotional trajectory of Shakespeare's "dark lady" sonnets, is fascinating from first to last. The brief instrumental solos, particularly for flute, oboe, and clarinet, are nicely folded into the fabric. The complicated terrain covered includes foreboding unisons near the start and an episode of aggression in which the horns take over. Something like exhaustion — hinting at the inevitable listlessness that follows intensity in love — sets in until the full orchestra gains force once again, only to subside hauntingly near the end before a final "Basta!"

The recording amounts to a farewell tribute that will stand for something fresh and adventurous in Kirk Trevor's legacy as shaper of the ICO's artistic stature since 1988.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Middle Earth in Mahlerland: ISO comes home for the second of three performances of the fifth symphony

Setting out on the final phase of symphonic creation in his short life, Gustav Mahler returned to a purely instrumental concept for his Symphony in C-sharp minor, which occupies the middle position in his astonishingly personal and trailblazing series of nine completed symphonies.

He was motivated in part by a thorough reaquaintance with the music of J.S. Bach, whose unsurpassed skills at making independent "voices" work together (polyphony, or counterpoint) had likewise influenced Mozart's late phase just over a century before.

The fifth symphony is the sole work on this weekend's Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra program; The performance I heard Saturday was the first of two repeats of a Krzysztof Urbanski interpretation first presented Friday night at the Palladium in Carmel. The ISO will play it again Sunday afternoon at Center Grove High School in Greenwood as the finale of its 2014-15 "317 Series."

I might be tempted to trek down there on the strength of Tom Hooten's stellar work guesting in the
Tom Hooten
first-trumpet chair (one of several positions the ISO needs to fill). On his way up in the profession, Hooten was briefly assistant principal trumpet here; now he is principal trumpet of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Hooten's sound is big, really big — but also warm and even sweet. This variegated quality seemed perfect for a leading solo voice in a symphony as chock-full of emotional turmoil as the Mahler Fifth. The final vista is of almost giddy joy, however, and that's an appropriate description of how this most accomplished guest is being received by colleagues and concertgoers alike this weekend.

Such a firm stamp was put on the trumpet solos by Hooten, starting with the bone-chilling fanfare that launches the first movement, that it may have inspired ISO principal horn Robert Danforth to be as bold and self-assured as ever I've heard him.  The composer highlights the instrument so conspicuously that the lead part tops the section on its own staff as "horn obbligato," and in that capacity Danforth's playing was noble, even heaven-storming, on Saturday.

Krzysztof Urbanski: In Mahler, the conductor is god.
So far I've focused on a couple of soloists, and there will be more to say about the ISO's achievement in meeting the score's demands.  But let's face it: If conductors get the lion's share of symphonic glory today, Gustav Mahler is the maestro that roared in the modern era.

A painstaking, somewhat fierce conductor himself, the Austrian composer's day job was on the podium, where he was both acclaimed and resented.  It's small wonder that his symphonic scores represent the apotheosis of the conductor, and the Fifth is a sterling example. The abundance of words scattered throughout offer instruction to the players, of course, but many of them are totally dependent on the conductor's technical control and attention to detail. Mahler often urges "pressing forward," "holding back," playing "heavy" yet well-articulated — plenty of this or that, but not too much.

If a conductor tries to follow Mahler's direction in a generalized way, he misses the point. Dynamics are so particular to instruments in even their tiniest phrases that Mahler's insistence to Sibelius that a symphony should represent the world does not seem far-fetched. He wanted as much out of his muisc in performance as he could get into his scores, but had too much practical musical experience to be unrestrained. At times, his orchestral music slightly resembles that of the pioneering American modernist Charles Ives, though it's much less haphazard in inspiration and organization and clearer and more brilliant in orchestration.

Urbanski seemed scrupulous about all this in every respect, and got good results from the orchestra.  True, after a pause of several minutes before the third movement (Mahler's directive), the orchestra's return to action took a while to settle. The Scherzo righted itself before long, however, and the Ländler (a country waltz relative) feeling the ISO came up with was charming. Transient partnerships among solo instruments were tastefully handled.

Strings and harp were exquisitely balanced in the sublime Adagietto movement: Urbanski elicited slight tempo shifts to keep the music interesting and still poised. Phrases moved in convex and concave patterns with unerring logic. Abrupt changes in sound and texture, like the wild episodes that disturb the solemn march music of the first movement, were given their true weight as well as the necessary ingredient of surprise.

The Rondo-finale, a vast landscape of exuberant feeling, displayed some wooliness in rushing string passages. But it also featured precise overlapping of string and wind lines, fantastic contrapuntal brio as the Bach influence expresses itself in Mahler's idiom, and moments that could almost be taken for an Austrian hoedown. The gradual gathering of brass forces into a chorale before the delirious rush to the final double bar could hardly have been more exciting.

This performance was a landmark in Urbanski's progress with the orchestra, which badly needs settled personnel (sign of progress: sitting first-chair cello was Austin Huntington in a trial week) to move to the summit of its potential under the Polish maestro's direction.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

"Did you think your messy death would be a record-breaker?": 'Jesus Christ Superstar' hits middle age in stride in BOBDIREX production

Name recognition alone helps ensure a long life for "Jesus Christ Superstar," the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice 1970 rock opera. The creators built on the gospel story of Jesus' final week, bringing the conflicts to the fore, skirting the theological issues in order to focus on the human drama — internal and external pressures coming to bear upon a charismatic healer and preacher. They dressed it up shrewdly in the lyricism and plugged-in energy derived from "British Invasion" rock's first decade.
Judas meets Jesus in the garden in "Jesus Christ Superstar."

A production putting forth a claim for  the show's viability opened Friday night at the Marian University Theater, the new home for BOBDIREX shows formerly housed at the Athenaeum downtown. It was there that such productions as "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," "Spamalot," and "Hair" established the BOBDIREX brand: lively, sprawling, effervescent ensemble theater with some glory in the main roles. The atmosphere that director Bob Harbin creates resembles what might happen if a highly successful commune — a utopian community in its initial flourishing, before the inevitable discord and fragmentation — decided to put on a show.

In "Jesus Christ Superstar," Harbin's canny movement of his cast folds seamlessly into Kenny Shepard's choreography.  The excitement around the central figure ("What's the Buzz?"), the Palm Sunday entrance into Jerusalem ("Hosanna"), the profane business in a crowded holy place ("The Temple") — these first-act numbers are at the pinnacle of the show's characteristic bursting energy.

It would not be a BOBDIREX production without some excess, however. I'm not sure that Jesus' "den of thieves" accusation before he clears the temple of moneychangers and other traders should have a pansexual brothel as a setting. But these players throw themselves into erotic posturing as readily as they do into their "hosannas" and the crowd's eventual disdain for the troublemaking preacher.

The settings — metal scaffolding and rolling staircases — moved about and settled into place almost as smoothly as their human occupants. The costuming, a provocative blend of steampunk (especially for Pontius Pilate) and first-century-Palestine robes, sandals, and tchoctchkes, suits the notion that Jesus was both luckily and unluckily placed amid the flotsam and jetsam of humanity. The hard-working orchestra and singers were under the solid control of music director Trevor Fanning.

Patrick Clements, tall, blond and white-robed, properly represented the cliche Sunday-school image of Christ. I think that visual cliche suits the show's self-consciousness about the issues of fame, image, and reputation. In the digital age, all that kind of thing has, well, gone viral, and not just for superstars. His singing was both plaintive and commanding, as called for by the occasion. The second-act solo showcase, "Gethsemane," came off stunningly.

Judas Iscariot: A man with a guitar and a dream (gone wrong).
Lloyd Webber and Rice make a big deal out of Judas Iscariot. The role gives a bipolar focus to the show (a device that served them well later with Che Guevara in "Evita"). Judas is explicitly framed as Jesus' right-hand man and one whose long simmering betrayal is depicted as anguished at every step. Joe Doyel played the role to the hilt. Both in the gospels and in this show, I find Judas a shallow character, but maybe traitors always seem shallow.

Gesturally, Doyel made too much of pointing his forefinger at the priests in "Damned for All Time," but otherwise he freshly inhabited the role, projecting the character's  emotional torture movingly throughout. Harbin insightfully invested Judas' relationship to Jesus with physical signs of affection that seem quite fitting.

The legendary status of Mary Magdalene as a reformed prostitute is a major feature of the show, and Julia Perillo was consistently clear and affecting in the role, especially in the ballad showcase, "I Don't Know How to Love Him," as well as in the duet with Peter (Tim Hunt) "Start Again Please." Another fine solo turn on the "good guys" side was Ramon Hutchins' impassioned cheerleading solo as the apostle Simon, shouting about "the power and the glory" that were to be Jesus' only after the crucifixion.

Michael Lasley lent his glowering basso well (apart from some apparent amplification problems) as Caiaphas, seconded in his pursuit of Jesus by Josiah R. McCruiston.  In the more flamboyant supporting roles, Ty Stover moved convincingly from an above-the-battle Pontius Pilate to an official desperate to be free of his No. 1 problem. And the show's most explicit parody-song, Herod's taunting of Jesus, was splendidly outsized (and just "out") in Danny Kingston's performance, backed up with symmetrical flair by the company.

"Jesus Christ Superstar" has staying power despite its capacity for giving Christians and non-Christians alike problems with its conception of one of the world's most famous stories.

This production has coincidentally lent some extra oomph to a lay sermon I will deliver Sunday at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Indianapolis, 615 W. 43rd Street, titled "Who Do Men Say I Am?": A  Humanist Looks at the Humanity of Jesus. All are welcome to attend; service starts at 10:30 a.m.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Monday, June 1, 2015

Jazz au naturel still stirs and sings: New CDs from Aaron Diehl, Marshall Gilkes, Anat Cohen, and Mark Guiliana

It's sometimes possible to wonder why jazz-rock fusion, and a general takeover of jazz instrumentation by electronic instruments, was ever thought to be a likely successor to acoustic jazz. The bandwagon probably started rolling in pursuit of a will-o'-the-wisp: recapturing the jazz audience lost when the big bands went into eclipse after World War II.

Technology will forever suggest new directions for art, and who can object to that? The problem comes when technology seems to be mandating the changes. Fortunately, though that large audience remains elusive, this particular mandate lost force over the decades since big hair and bell bottoms.

Love for instruments that naturally send sound waves in motion into the atmosphere with humans as direct agents has never receded from creative young minds. And these four releases are solid proof of  the attraction of staying relatively unplugged-in.

Anat Cohen is the foremost new voice of jazz clarinet.
Foremost among recent recordings I've paid attention to is Anat Cohen's "Luminosa" (Anzic).  The Israeli-American clarinetist has represented that somewhat neglected instrument for jazz in the 21st century. Her sound is both emotionally informed and technically nimble.

"Luminosa" is heavily oriented toward Cohen's exposure to Brazilian music, from such traditions as the choro (in which genre she performs with a separate band), the samba, and the bossa nova. She's a veteran bandleader by now — this is her seventh CD under her own name — and she has a sturdy sense of how to forge artistic unity across an hour of music.

Aaron Diehl is good at matching sidemen to his compositions.
Keyboardist Jason Lindner turns to electronics now and then, but there is a healthy emphasis on the unadorned sound of Cohen's clarinet and other accompanying instruments, chiefly guitars and percussion. Her lyricism is front and center in the opener, Milton Nascimento's "Lilia," particularly through extensive concentration on her ethereal, but always well-supported, upper register.

She has an instinctive sense of the applicability of bass clarinet to Nascimento's Southern Hemisphere soul, so she turns to that instrument capably for "Cais" and "Beatriz."

Lindner introduced to the band "Putty Boy Strut," which showcases the hopping symbiosis of clarinet and piano. Cohen achieves similar rapport with guitarist Romero Lubambo on "Bachiao," a tribute to J.S. Bach that, perhaps surprisingly, owes nothing to Heitor Villa-Lobos.

Her affectionate, lilting tribute to her mother, "Ima," is one of a near-handful of Cohen originals, the last one of which is the disc's finale, a hearty salute to the patriarch of jazz festivals, George Wein, with the leader taking the album's sole outing on tenor sax. As a clarinetist, her range seems more personal and adaptable: She is characteristically bluesy but ever-buoyant in another original, "Happy Song." 

Aaron Diehl's "Space, Time, Continuum (Mack Avenue Records) is the latest free exercise of a composer-pianist's creative imagination, not only in the pieces he composes or selects, but also in how he chooses to supplement his trio (with David Wong, bass, and Quincy Davis, drums). Diehl
was the 2011 Cole Porter Fellow of the American Pianists Association, and his trio performances then were so competition-canny I was worried he would settle into being more like an A-plus student of jazz piano than an original artist.

But in the new disc, he chooses his solo notes as carefully as he does his sidemen. He welcomes the ageless Benny Golson in two numbers, takes into account the feathery stylings of a young tenor saxophonist, Stephen Riley, on two other tracks. Shrewdly, he pairs Golson's time-tested experience with the youthful sass of trumpeter Bruce Harris, most significantly on the ambitious title track. That number features a vocal by Charenee Wade to lyrics by Wynton Marsalis protegee Cecile McLorin Savant; I never grasped Savant's poetry, but Wade sings it well and ends her appearance with some deft scatting.

It can't escape notice that a man old enough to be his grandfather, Scottish baritone saxophonist Joe Temperley, is the focus of a handsome Diehl original totally suited to his style, aptly titled "The Steadfast Titan." 

Mark Guiliana reaches into more compositional complexity than one normally expects from
Mark Guiliana drives a tight quartet in original compositions.
drummers. He leads a super-compatible ensemble in ""Family First" (Beat Music Productions), each piece built up from the trap set, but not focused on percussion showcasing. His tunes often have contrasting sections in an almost suite-like setting.

The disc-opener, "One Month," has such an infectious rhythmic structure that it captivated me in repeated listenings. Guiliana's quartet is hand-in-glove with his compositional inspiration. No one takes extensive solos; the pieces are built around contrasts in tempo and texture, and everyone participates as equals.

I found that the disc lagged in interest between the middle and the end, but the hymnlike originality of "Family First," which ends the CD to which it lends its title, made for a finale that somehow managed to be both humble and grand in a unified way. And that's how we feel, isn't it?, when family life is going well and comes in first in our lives, comprising feelings of both humility and grandeur.

The intercontinental face of contemporary acoustic jazz is well-represented on "Köln" (Alternate Side Records) with Marshall Gilkes  contributing repertoire and trombone-playing to the first-class WDR Big Band in Cologne, Germany (a city whose German name supplies the album title). The American musician was a member of the band for four years.

In program notes, Gilkes praises his former adoptive city as having "an incredible music scene for such a small town."  As of 2011, Cologne had an estimated population of 1,017,000; its cathedral, in front of which Gilkes is pictured on the CD cover, is one of the monuments of central European church architecture. Some small town!

The music within is much more sophisticated and solidly based than Gilkes' words. There's a lovely, high-flying arrangement of "My Shining Hour" to start things off. From there the originals are effervescent ("4711 Special") or stately ("Edenderry") or gently propelled, with some gorgeous big-band writing ("Mary Louise" and "Downtime").

Gilkes rarely puts himself as a player in the spotlight on "Köln," preferring to let the WDR ensemble do wonders with his compositions and arrangements.  But he is well worth savoring as a trombonist on "Edenderry" and "Downtime."