Friday, October 30, 2015

Rachel Barton Pine brings Vivaldi's mastery of the viola d'amore to the fore

The viola d'amore is a special interest of Rachel Barton Pine's.
Among the most valuable recent releases from Cedille Reords is a magnificent disc of Antonio Vivaldi's six concertos for viola d'amore, with Rachel Barton Pine as soloist with Ars Antigua.

For the most part, the accompaniments are for string orchestra with harpsichord (David Schrader), but a particularly fascinating piece is the Concerto in F major, RV 97, with the resonant string instrument partnered with horns and oboes, plus (in the slow second movement), a bassoon.

The viola d'amore, which gave way to the viola we know today, enjoyed a vogue in the Baroque era because its equal number of bowed and resonating strings (totaling 12)  gave it a warm aura as a solo instrument that could hold its own in the ensembles of the day.  And this is how Pine plays it, fully engaged with the Chicago-based period-instrument ensemble.

Vivaldi achieved a great deal of variety in his settings for the instrument. Sometimes a stately theme
is set against bravura in the solo part, as in the  D minor concerto, RV 394.  There are themes with strong accents, imparting a swinging zest, as in the third movement of another D minor concerto, RV 395. There are variations of texture as well as of accent, as in an accompaniment which shifts between chords and counterpoint against the ornamented solo line.

To close out the set, there is the late concerto, again in D minor (RV 540) that brings in the lute as a secondary solo instrument. Hopkinson Smith is Pine's partner for it, which is notable for a refreshing exchange of phrases between lute and viola d'amore in the finale.

Here's my review of her performance of some of these works with the Indianapolis Baroque Orchestra:

A mini-post for faithful readers: Momma don't 'low no muddy skirts 'round here

Morton Feldman (1926-1987), American composer
One exchange from a 1967 interview with Morton Feldman, newly translated from the French and available through a link on Norman Lebrecht's blog:

JYB: What do you think about composers who close themselves off in a technique, in a system?

MF: That’s like those guys who are forty years old who still live in their mother’s skirts.

My tribute: 

 A haiku in memoriam Morton Feldman

Who are they? Just watch
For the ones who hike up skirts
To cross mud puddles.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Distorting art through political filters: Did Mark Twain do 'a historic injustice' to Jim?

 "To speak of culture is to foreshadow a battle." — John Keene, Annotations, quoted by Ben Ehrenreich in the Oct. 19 Nation.

"I do believe he cared just as much for his people as white folks does for their'n." — Huckleberry Finn, reflecting on his companion Jim's homesickness as they raft down the Mississippi

What do we go to art for? How vital to our experience of art are the political and cultural values we have absorbed and the personal moral sense we've developed along the way?

These questions loom large as our political life shows no sign of losing its polarized quality, and the cultural wars that sometimes overshadow larger social ills continue to bloody the landscape. "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" still bobs to the surface of a raging torrent, and a particular instance concerns me here. Without retreating into aestheticism, it's important to resist confusing what art does with how we think the world should be.

John Keene extends Jim's story in "Rivers."
Such confusion is promoted by a  review of John Keene's "Counternarratives: Stories and Novellas" in a recent issue of The Nation. "Probably the most exemplary of them," writes reviewer Ben Ehrenreich, "is 'Rivers,' a tender and brutal tale in which Keene avenges a historic injustice, granting Mark Twain's Jim the opportunity to narrate his own post-Huckleberry life."

My blood started boiling at that. I could hardly believe Ehrenreich meant the historic injustice was Mark Twain's, rather than the slavery Jim was trying to escape. But my worst fears were confirmed as the reviewer goes on to credit Keene with making Jim "something Twain never allowed him to be: a man of complexity and depth, with his own loves, tragedies, desires."

My head was practically exploding (fortunately a rare condition) at that "something Twain never allowed him to be." I will set aside Keene's imaginative foray into Jim's "post-Huckleberry life,"  granting it for now an artistic integrity the reviewer seems to be withholding from "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." As a young black writer, Keene may very well have an agenda, but I'll give him the benefit of the doubt inveterate readers extend to all creative writers.

But no Keene agenda could be as pernicious as Ehrenreich's. Let's get a few things straight: An author is neither permitting nor denying a character freedom that a sympathetic reader may choose to imagine for him. Jim is a slave of Miss Watson's, not Mark Twain's. And both Jim and Miss Watson are characters, among many others, chiefly the title boy, who have been created by Mark Twain. They behave and think according to the demands of the story he wanted to tell.

The limits an author places on his characters are a large part of the reason he's telling a story about them. You might as well take a dim view of Gustave Flaubert for not allowing Emma Bovary to marry someone other than a dull, provincial doctor. How unfair to condemn her to suicide after she has made a mess of her life!

Jane Smiley gave Huck-lovers lots to think about.
Someone came up with this worthy two-fold description of a critic's responsibilities: First, determine what the author is trying to do. Second, assess how well he has done it. You can't discard the first part by revising your responsibility so you get to determine what the author should be trying to do, applying tests extraneous to art. That's just stocking a barrel with fish. For step two, you can easily proceed to shoot them.

Of course, "Huckleberry Finn" is open to criticism on aesthetic grounds, including evidence that the
author may have had a divided consciousness about what he was trying to do. This is the tack the
novelist Jane Smiley pursued in her 1996 essay on the novel, comparing it unfavorably to "Uncle Tom's Cabin"  and crediting the latter for greater clarity about the evils of slavery and its toll on real human beings. But Harriet Beecher Stowe nonetheless accomplished this through creating imaginary characters and putting them into action.

Smiley's intelligent anti-Huck argument is not even closely approached by Ehrenreich's clueless swipes. It's hardly worth my time attacking a reviewer few of my readers have heard of. But the air that criticism breathes is also breathed by readers and playgoers, and Ehrenreich's rhetoric seems designed to set up criteria for judging works of art as though they were political positions subject to attack for siding with "historic injustice." I've grown suspicious of the term "political correctness," but this is a prime example of it.

Besides which, he's got Mark Twain's Jim all wrong. The escaping slave clearly has "his own loves, tragedies, desires"; Huck is amazed Jim thinks often of the family he left behind and expresses his sorrow openly; the second epigraph of this post quotes that acknowledgment. One of the novel's most moving episodes follows, when a sharp noise from the riverbank reminds Jim of the time he realized his 4-year-old daughter had been deafened by scarlet fever, from which he thought she had recovered. He slapped her for not obeying his command to shut the cabin door. Then, after a gust slammed the door shut and she didn't flinch, he suddenly realized the child couldn't hear anything, and he hugged her, crying and begging forgiveness.

So, the reviewer doesn't seem to know what's in the original book, but his worse error is believing that Mark Twain remains a bad actor on the political stage, especially where race relations are concerned, and that "Huckleberry Finn" may be properly judged as a tract or a personality test of the author, who flunks. The historic injustice has to be avenged, to use Ehrenreich's fevered language, through the unfinished business of American life, not through misreading an American classic.
It would be presumptuous to assume Mark Twain harbored no racism, but he was surely capable of looking in the same direction with an African-American.

Among the apt parts of Smiley's critique of "Huckleberry Finn" is to question why Huck and Jim didn't head straight for the opposite shore to Illinois, a free state. You will recall they shot past Cairo, carrying them deeper into the slave states, when they had intended to turn up the Ohio. Again, Mark Twain is in control here, and his neglect of that solution can best be attributed to the romance of the river.

As Samuel Clemens, Twain had been caught up in that idyll (see "Life on the Mississippi"), and Huck, his hero, enjoys the freedom of rafting and having genuine adventures not indebted to Tom Sawyer's borrowed trickery. It may be an aesthetic flaw to have allowed the romance of the river to take over the story, but I don't think so. Neither have generations of readers around the world. However much being mesmerized by the Mississippi may draw attention away from Jim's search for freedom, this is Huck's story. Twain's biggest mistake was to allow Tom Sawyer to complicate the last part of the book with pointless shenanigans, diminishing both Huck and Jim.

Huck and Jim disagree about Solomon's reputed wisdom.
In conclusion, I'll draw upon Jim's native sagacity in order to object to p.c. readings of "Huckleberry Finn." It comes earlier, when Huck and Finn are discussing Bible stories. The boy is trying to convince his companion of Solomon's justified reputation for wisdom; he's getting nowhere. Jim brings up the story of the king's proposed solution to a dispute between two women over a child claimed by each: cutting it in two.

Jim is having none of it: "De 'spute warn't 'bout a half a chile, de 'spute was 'bout a whole chile; en de man dat think he can settle a 'spute 'bout a whole chile wid a half a chile, doan' know enough to come in out'n de rain."

There's a whole man in Mark Twain's great book, a runaway slave named Jim. Readers who go into "Huckleberry Finn" with a filter that suspects the author of insufficiently raised consciousness taking the form of confining a character as if in a real master-slave relationship  — those people, whether common readers or critics, will emerge with only half a man, and even less of the book.

This 'spute is about what's lost in doing that. Social-justice ideologues  need to come in out'n de rain and dry off around the glowing hearth of art.

[For a local scholar's recent examination of Mark Twain's relationship to his characters and his times, read my former colleague Dan Carpenter's feature here.]


Monday, October 26, 2015

Garrick Ohlsson returns to Indianapolis on Sunday under American PIanists Association auspices

Garrick Ohlsson is a Chopin specialist, ranges into the modern repertoire, too
It won't disappoint fans of Garrick Ohlsson to know that the second half of his recital this Sunday for the American Pianists Association will be devoted to music of Frederic Chopin.

That's a considerable understatement, given that Ohlsson has been in the front rank of American concert pianists since winning the Chopin International Piano Competition in 1970, when he was just 21.

After his recital's first half comprises two major works by other masters — Beethoven's Sonata in A major, op. 110, and Schubert's "Wanderer" Fantasy in C major — Ohlsson will offer Scherzo No. 4 in E major, two etudes, the Nocturne in C minor, op. 48, no. 1, and the Ballade in G minor.

Ohlsson's discography as well as his concert schedule has featured a lot of Chopin throughout the 45 years he's been before the public in a big way. One of my favorites among his early LPs is the 1974 Angel Records release of the Preludes, op. 28, plus three other pieces, ending with the Barcarolle.

Here's what I wrote aobut the season-opening performance of Chopin's First Piano Concerto that Ohlsson treated ISO patrons to in September 1913:

The APA is recommending that those interested in the Ohlsson recital use
the promo code LoveIndy for 10-percent-off tickets to the recital. Go to the web site to order:

Sammy Miller and the Congregation revive the art of rough-edged jazz, mixed with fun and floor-show elements

Sammy Miller, in a subdued portrait sans Congregation
At the end of its cheekily named Rust Belt tour, Sammy Miller and the Congregation played Birdy's Sunday night to a large, ardent crowd. The New York sextet includes as keyboardist David Linard, formerly active in Indianapolis as a Sophie Faught sideman.

Led by an amiable drummer manning a compact kit with a wide range of dynamics and exuberant time-keeping, the band was Rust-Belting it out one last time. According to trombonist Sam Crittenden, the now concluded tour is the band's first-ever venture away from the Big Apple.

Sammy Miller and the Congregation update classic jazz and Americana. The latter loose category ranged on this gig from Stephen Foster to Jimmie Davis, whose "You Are My Sunshine" was an assertive encore.

Everything they take up seems subject to hardening the groove and freeing the conventional jazz demeanor: The band revives the category of "entertainment jazz," whose luminaries include Fats Waller, Cab Calloway, Louis Prima, and Louis Jordan.

There was also enough movement on and off the stage during the band's program to distantly evoke the way good jazz was often accompanied by a floor show. Nothing as elaborate (or tempting) as a troupe of female dancers travels with the Congregation. But I couldn't help thinking of the vintage photos and prose accounts of the shows Duke Ellington put on at the Cotton Club while presenting some of the most innovative jazz ever.

That history came to mind with this band's performance, after a set-opening "Mahogany Hall Stomp," of a medley consisting of "Solitude," featuring the Bechet-like soprano sax of Patrick Sargent, and a grinding "Black and Tan Fantasy." The steady chunk-chunk rhythm of the original was intensified here to a pile-driving beat, introduced by ensemble shouts. Then the well-knit melodies unfolded, ending with the famous Chopin Funeral March quotation and tenor saxophonist Ben Flocks suitably supine on the stage floor. Along the way, Crittenden offered a personalized approximation of Ellington's plunger-mute pioneer, cornetist Bubber Miley.

Novelty elements were freely troweled into some songs. The line in Waller's "Ain't Misbehavin'" about "just me and my radio" provided the occasion for the band to imitate static-flecked dial-twirling and snatches of different musical genres in broadcasts of yore. As bassist John Snow began one number unaccompanied, band members turned aside, chatting in two groups. That evoked a much-shared cartoon on the Internet of a crime suspect about to open up under interrogation, flanked by a double-bass player and a detective: "He'll talk — everybody talks during the bass solo."  That morphed into a wailing rendition of "Happy Birthday" to Snow, who was celebrating his 23rd.

Stephen Foster's "Hard Times Come Again No More" and "Gentle Lena Claire"  were linked in a rare excursion — at least for this venue, I assume — into popular music some 150 years old.

The band proposes that what's corny can also be hip: After Flocks was featured in a now-he-sings, now-he-sobs version of "Tennessee Waltz," Miller and the Congregation closed things out with "Struttin' With Some Barbecue," featuring one of Sargent's best neo-Bechet outings and a solo by the leader that skillfully laid out variations on New Orleans march rhythms.

There's a potentially limitless future for making the old new again in the Congregation manner. As one of its patron saints used to say: One never knows, do one?

Sunday, October 25, 2015

IRT's new play by James Still fleshes out a moment of Indianapolis greatness built on a national disaster

Nearly 50 years ago, an aide to Robert F. Kennedy told Andrew Kopkind, a leading journalist of the time: "One of the questions we ask is what the political consequences of a speech will be. But it is very rarely the first question."

The first question on the minds of RFK and his circle on the night of April 4, 1968, cannot adequately be framed. Whatever it was, the candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination answered it superbly. Perhaps a version of that question is answered in James Still's new play.

What Kennedy said in just over five minutes in that crowded park at 17th and Broadway has gone into history as balm to a deep wound — balm that was effective notably here in Indianapolis, if not elsewhere across a nation boiling up in black rage at the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Whatever the speech's political consequences might have been in the short run, they were snuffed out with the New York senator's assassination two months later.
John Henry nuzzles Addie before the day's calamity.

Still has used Kennedy's address to the shocked crowd as a fulcrum for "April 4, 1968," which opened this weekend in an Indianapolis Repertory Theatre production. If the subtitle "Before We Forgot How to Dream" anchors the play too firmly in a certain view of history, it's only because the mythic stature of the drama works so well and does not close off any dreams. And it does this in part by not offering any pat answers to America's racial problems.

Longtime playwright in residence at IRT, Still has the gift for taking real stories and presenting them with a sort of aura that emphasizes their transformative effect on people's lives. In "April 4, 1968," he focuses on a black Indianapolis family named Fields — mother, father, and two young daughters, Geneva (Christina D. Harper) and Johnna Rose (Nia Simmons) — and their reasonably well-grounded hope for a better life.

John Henry Fields (James T. Alfred) is a musician and doting family man frustrated by the difficulty of profitably pursuing what he loves. The family clings to the lower middle class through wife Addie's (Tracey N. Bonner) job at the airport. Their tolerant, folksy landlady, Miss Davine (Cathy Simpson), is an elderly household spirit capable of giving a homespun perspective to the complex struggles and simple pleasures of black life in America.

In the confusion and sorrow following Kennedy's announcement to the dazed, dispersing crowd, a white college student is left stranded. RFK volunteer Geneva impulsively invites him to come home with her and her mother. Matt (Nick Vidal), a business major at IU finding his real passion satisfied by his literature courses, thus balances Miss Davine's insider perspective with an awkward, but politically engaged, outsider's viewpoint.

Geneva, Addie, Matt, and Johnna Rose catch their breaths on a difficult night.
The six characters spend a long night together, surrounded by an eerie quiet outside, framed by a deejay (Michael Keck) playing soul music over WTLC and chatting like everyone's favorite streetcorner pal with his audience in between Motown and Stax songs.

Still's gift for creating three-dimensional characters makes the lengthy second act enthralling, and director Courtney Sale moves the actors around on IRT's Upperstage with a sure sense of what movement best suits the dialogue from point to point. True, the breadth and depth of the characters' reflections on the day's linked events in Indianapolis and Memphis threaten to turn individuals into composites. Still's extensive research into memories of that time and place shows almost too much. But the cast reins in any hints of overreach through its focus and passion.

Still is deft at placing insights, clarity, and simple human connection in the right places. When Miss Davine starts singing "His Eye Is on the Sparrow" and is softly joined by others in harmony, for example. Or when the female three-fourths of the host family plus Matt, uncomfortably side by side on the couch, slowly clasp hands.

Best of all, and the crowning indication that Still is more a dramatist than a documentarian, is the significance of the jar. Addie relates at one point the family tradition of passing around a jar filled with cream and a bit of salt to be shaken into butter during family discussions; the exuberant Johnna Rose playfully wants to do that now, even though there is no cream in the house. Her mother agrees, and the ritual is enacted.

The Kennedy-King Memorial at the park where Kennedy spoke.
The empty jar becomes a focal point, a symbol of community, the ghost of an inherited domestic project designed to override division, yielding a desired product. Oddly apposite to its meaning is a poem by Wallace Stevens, a poet fairly insensitive to American social turmoil, one of whose otherwise good poems even has an offensive title. But the one I want to bring in here is "Anecdote of the Jar."

Recalling King's death in Memphis, the day after his "I have been to the mountaintop"  speech, I'm reminded of the poem's first of three quatrains: "I placed a jar in Tennessee, /And round it was, upon a hill. / It made the slovenly wilderness / Surround that hill." The jar the martyred civil-rights leader placed in Tennessee and elsewhere throughout his brief career held the ingredients of rich, social-justice butter.

The jar "took dominion everywhere," Stevens writes of his surrealistically bare container. The hill King stood upon, like the flatbed truck from which Kennedy delivered his imperishable speech, was surrounded, at unsurveyable distances, by the slovenly wilderness of racism.

But when Geneva lifts up her bare jar in "April 4, 1968"'s last scene and it catches the light, you feel the dream that it reflects might still be viable.

"The wilderness rose up to it / And sprawled around, no longer wild," Stevens writes. The Fields family, including Matt (to whom Still gives the same last name), does not have an easy or predictable way forward. But the path through that tamable wilderness has to be there.

[IRT production photos by Zach Rosing]

Saturday, October 24, 2015

'Blood will have blood': EclecticPond meets Shakespeare the theater tyro feeling his way through revenge and slaughter

Anyone preparing to see "Titus Andronicus" on the stage does not get much encouragement from commentators on Shakespeare. My favorite among modern Bard critics, the generous and judicious Harold Goddard, opens his two-page essay (in "The Meaning of Shakespeare") with this tight-lipped sentence: "All lovers of Shakespeare would be glad to relieve the poet of responsibility for that concentrated brew of blood and horror, Titus Andronicus."

Wishful thinking is not enough to absolve Shakespeare of a pretty certain claim to sole authorship of this revenge tragedy, set in late ancient Rome at a time when the decaying empire was being menaced by the Goths. The thin line between civilization and barbarism was never thinner than it is here.

EclecticPond Theatre Company has mounted a gritty, robust interpretation of a drama with an excess of mayhem and unalloyed evil designs.  It has been supposed that the burgeoning author was attempting a gruesome parody of a genre traceable to the Roman playwright Seneca, or else that he had yet to find his way to craft a true tragic hero and a course of action both plausible and insightful.

Titus Andronicus is a Roman general unequal to what his status requires.
With a setting of shreds and patches, and the actors cryptically daubed and clad in a vintage-shop gallimaufry of modern dress, the production signals a world of misrule, confined to power plays among the elite and the eternal desire of war captives for payback. Everyone has his own notion of justice, but Shakespeare wastes little of his characters' energy on moral considerations.

Hints of magnanimity in the titular hero soon come through as weakness, and the impulsive manner in which Titus participates in the cruelty all around him feels like purposeless flailing against his victimization. He's not evil, yet he doesn't excite much sympathy, either. Despite being a much-laureled Roman general, he's an empty toga. In James McNulty's performance,  these contradictory notes are well-managed.

The audience may come closest to understanding Titus when he says: "If there were reason for these miseries, / Then into limits could I bind my woes." But it's a world without limits he's fated to occupy right up through the last scene's serial slaughter. And there is no reason behind the miseries he and others endure and inflict upon one another.

Tamora assumes a submissive attitude toward the Emperor.
Matt Anderson's clearcut performance as the general's brother, Marcus Andronicus, suggests some grasp on the need for civic order. But he too is swept up in the bloody chaos, more than the fragile Roman establishment can handle in the spoils-of-war threat posed by the Goth queen Tamora, a time-release capsule of poison in  Kelly Gualdoni's portrayal. Once Tamora is empress by decree of the power-mad Emperor Saturninus (Zachariah Stonerock), the wheels of evildoing are set spinning. Stonerock's full-throttle style fully suits the sweep and excess of  the play's characteristic speech and action.

Indeed, since it's not easy to criticize Shakespeare even in one of his worst plays, I'll give him the benefit of the doubt (and considerable credit to Thomas Cardwell's directing): He may have been experimenting with matching his dramatic-verse skills to his characters' extreme behavior. I hear him asking himself: Can I get as much evil into what the characters say as into what they do?

There's a certain headlong tempo to the cast's delivery of the script's iron-clad iambic pentameter. This seemed less a flaw in the performance I saw than a way of unifying words and action. The playwright's experiment, if that's what Cardwell is seeing in the young Shakespeare, eventually paled for him, and his genius cast it aside. The only evil that is allowed to bloom in "Titus Andronicus" is that expressed by Aaron, an unrepentant sinner effectively modulated in tone in Joanna Winston's performance. Aaron's proud ownership of his paternity in the case of Zamora's bastard son was beautifully played. But touches of humanity, even distorted, are precious few in "Titus."

Another aspect that became clearer for me in seeing the tragedy is the claustrophobic quality of the images. All of them  are like iron filings making a pattern according to the magnetic force of revenge. Particularly striking is the way the natural world is emblematic of the characters' motives and thoughts. You don't get any imaginative play about nature, like that lovely passage in "Macbeth" when Duncan and Banquo arrive at Macbeth's castle and pause to marvel at the pleasant environment. Of course, such a passage also shows Shakespeare had learned much about dramatic irony as well by the time he wrote the Scottish play.

What makes "Titus Andronicus" unsatisfying even in such a vigorously played and  fluently executed production is this constrained quality. A world of unbound woes seems choked. Shakespeare needed to find reason for the miseries he put on the stage before he could do his best work. He was after other game in "Titus Andronicus," and he ran it to ground obsessively.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Way beyond "you've got mail": At the Phoenix Theatre, 'The Nether' looks into the dark frontiers of life online

In the head-spinning rapid pace of life today, it's stunning that people still talk about "the foreseeable future." What kind of genius does it take to know how much of the future is foreseeable, especially when — as has been pointed out recently about "Back to the Future" Day — no predictions of just a few decades ago foresaw the Internet?

"The Nether," the 2013 play by Jennifer Haley that opened at the Phoenix Theatre Thursday night, "takes place in the near future," the program book tells us. It's a canny positioning of the drama's placement in time. It prepares the audience for seeing so much of the present worming its way into a technological dystopia that Haley's startling manipulations of character and setting seem plausible. The putative nearness of this particular future is frightening.

We are already on the threshold of establishing second and third selves online, depending on how much we choose to engage with what it offers. On Facebook, wading along the shore of this ocean, many of us count without qualms "friends" we barely know. Sometimes, instead of imparting what we know and feel in real-world conversation, we choose to share a link.

 "What's on your mind?" Facebook asks us in gray type. It might as well ask us, "Who do you want to be right now?" As we share articles, essays, borrowed rants, and memes, we are presenting ourselves in new lights. Here I am, we say, and here's something else that's also me. Our friends know a little bit more about us, they think, even when we contribute to the status report only the endorsement "THIS."

Tabletop dispute: Sims confronts Morris' tehno-sleuthing.
In "The Nether," Bill Simmons plays a man being investigated for harboring pedophiles in a role-playing online idyll called the Hideaway. His rationalization of a perversion he shares with his clients is that he is simply freeing the imagination, allowing them to experience "life without consequences." As Detective Morris, Sarah McGee is charged with representing offline reality and its norms, keeping the vulnerable from wholly going over.

As the play gets started, this tension seems a little flat and programmatic. Any kind of fiction, on stage or page, that poses a "What if...?" reality first has to establish the terms of its invented world. Then, what answers the question — in this case, "What if online fantasy games, including made-up identities and milieus, became so essential to players that they threatened the real world's command?" — can play out. But handling such a chore can feel borderline laborious, despite what eventually flowers under Bryan Fonseca's direction.

Still, I was fascinated by the way the question comes up with answers. That gets into spoiler territory,
From laptop to lap: Sims rules the game.
which reviewer etiquette demands I avoid. Suffice it to say that the Hideaway features a series of prepubescent fantasy girls, white and frilly of garb, of whom the play focuses on Iris, portrayed with exuberant, disturbing innocence (apparently) by the diminutive Paeton Chavis.

Known as Papa when he's in the Hideaway, Sims maintains that his demented playground, in which the rules of the game contradict his message, is a liberating arena, a test kitchen for the movable feast of human potential. How often does the world thwart our appetite for that? Consistently and unjustifiably, he would argue. Sounding a little like the once fashionable British psychoanalyst R.D. Laing, Sims holds that "our experience of each other is the root of consciousness." For the world to prescribe how we are allowed to experience each other violates our nature, to which only recent technology has given us full access.

Divided consciousness:Iris' appeal disturbs Woodnut.
The uneasiness of one of the clients, Woodnut  — Scot Greenwell, in a finely tuned performance of pained apprehensiveness — starts to unravel Sims' tightly wound scenario. The ambivalence of another client (Rich Rand, embodying the anguish of there being no freedom from consequence) we sense early on: Detective Morris uses her tech savvy to expose it and move further into understanding the Nether and its menace.

The Phoenix production team has put vivid substance behind the unsettling magic with a set divided between an interrogation room and the Hideaway. The latter is deliberately attractive; the place where revelations occur in the world that sets itself against the Nether is all monochrome, bunker-like efficiency.

If there is a bright side to "The Nether," it's the assurance that a life without consequences is neither possible nor desirable. Something, whether it's rooted in religion or not, will always pull most of us back into linking our thoughts and actions to their results. We are lucky to persist in such a belief, given that so much of life lies outside our control.

Jennifer Haley has avoided preachiness in putting across the difficult beauty of being responsible, even with all the unbounded virtual charisma available to us. The root of consciousness is not some elusive purity of experience that the world keeps blocking. The malleability of personal identity has its limits. Even the imagination has to rest on a foundation of dealing with consequences.


[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Gold medalist Kelemen brings his award-winning string quartet to Indiana Landmarks Center

Barnabas Kelemen seemed fully formed as a musician when he won the top prize in the 2002 Internataional Violin Competition of Indianapolis. There was more than the steely confidence and technical polish of a competition winner to his playing — a quality more settled, more mature, more ready for the world than even a few other IVCI gold medalists I can recall.
Laszlo Fenjo, Katalin Kokas, Barnabas Kelemen, and Gabor Homoky.

So it's not surprising that he should have put together five years ago a string quartet that has quickly gained acclaim and stature among the younger such groups on the international scene.

On Tuesday night the Kelemen Quartet appeared at Indiana Landmarks Center under the joint auspices of the Ensemble Music Society and the IVCI. The program drew heavily on the Hungarian origin of the ensemble, after opening with a late quartet by Joseph Haydn.

For that piece, Kelemen's wife, Katalin Kokas, played second violin; for pieces by Gyorgy Kurtag and Bela Bartok, she played viola, exchanging places with violinist-violist Gabor Homoky. The group also includes cellist Laszlo Fenyo. Haydn's Quartet in D minor, op. 76, no. 2, carries the nickname "Quinten" because of its thoroughgoing use of a motif of falling fifths. The historically defining interval makes its presence in a composition both easy to pick out and fit for all kinds of disguises, and Haydn was a clever enough composer to cover the whole range.

The Kelemen Quartet performed it with well-judged phrasing and precision in negotiating the wit and surprises characteristic of the Austrian composer, especially with regard to sudden changes of tempo, tense pauses, and dynamic variety, which was particularly well brought off in the second movement. Articulation was well-matched, too, especially in the extensive staccato demands of that movement.

The rustic charm of the Minuet came through splendidly, and the spirited finale had the kind of grandeur, never overbearing, that we find in Haydn's "London" symphonies. The Kelemen ensemble can speak with a mighty voice when required, but also masters fragmentary, irresolute, and wispy music just as well, as the concert's one 21st-century piece showed.

Kurtag, who will turn 90 next year, is Hungary's most eminent living composer. His "Six Moments Musicaux," op. 44, brought the concert up to intermission. These pieces cover a wide variety of the expressive possibilities of atonal composition in its later generations. Not privileging a tonal center does not mean giving up on music's age-old fitness for all sorts of thoughts and emotions, and the Kelemen Quartet proceeded to demonstrate that fact.

"Footfalls" seemed appropriate for the Halloween season, as the title indicated that looking back over your shoulder upon hearing such steps can be represented in music all its own. The fourth miniature, in memory of pianist Gyorgy Sebok (a favorite duo partner of the late cellist Janos Starker), was a brooding lamentation that gradually thinned out, holding on phrase by phrase as if to indicate how tenuous even desirable memories can be.

After the Kurtag, Bartok's String Quartet No. 5 had the substantial  familiarity of settled law, musically speaking. The broad-based opening movement allowed the Kelemen to reach the heights of sustained energy. In the "night music" movements (2 and 4), the players attention to the dim palette of colors was acute. They also brought out the movements' contrasting atmospheres: the second movement's sense that the nighttime is being sensed by an alert, wakeful person, in contrast to the fourth movement's eerie suggestion of shifting dream states.

The finale had a breadth that matched the opener, and then some. It galloped furiously at times, but would check itself expertly in the Kelemen's performance to delve into other moods and speeds. "Extraordinary how potent cheap music is," one of Noel Coward's characters exclaims, and that's how I felt about the wry evocation of Hungarian cafe bands in a sentimental tune just before the end. The tune remained cheap, but somehow exalted by its surroundings. On balance, the Bartok Fifth is anything but cheap music, and the Kelemen Quartet played it with no quibbling as to its lofty stature among 20th-century string quartets.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

New quintet, co-led by two ISO members at play, reinterprets the Weckl book, with a few extras

My view, first set, left to right: Ballantine, Dokken, Ortwein, Hetrick and Finnigan.
Band names that carry clues as to size, genre, and personnel can be almost cryptic. Nonetheless, the new HetWein Futet stands in the firm, if odd, tradition of naming push-comes-to-shove.

Let's see: There's been drummer Ralph Peterson's Fo'tet, saxophonist Jeff Coffin's Mu'tet, and of course (to trowel in size references beyond single digits) the 10-piece Marty Paich Dektette that provided such a good setting for Mel Torme for many years.

Classical education having survived better in Europe, French pianist Martial Solal counted up to 12 in Greek, while replacing the last part of the compound, with his Dodecaband.

Combined leader names work if they are short, as in TanaReid, an ensemble that played the Jazz Kitchen a few times under the leadership of drummer Akira Tana and bassist Rufus Reid. Five syllables required for the much-admired Sauter-Finnegan band of a couple of generations back suited that more patient era well enough. More representative of our speeded-up, hiphop-inflected time was the shortlived supergroup with a compressed rhyming name: ScoLoHoFo — just add water and stir, and you had (for one CD) John Scofield, Joe Lovano, Dave Holland, and Al Foster.

Anyway, this Indianapolis group is a "futet" because of its focus on fusion, specifically the heavy, white-bread groove of drummer Dave Weckl's bands. And the first part of the band name squeezes together the co-leader's names: drummer Craig Hetrick and saxophonist Mark Ortwein. The two Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra members — percussionist and assistant principal bassoonist, respectively — got together earlier this year to put into practice their admiration for the Dave Weckl repertoire.

Their first outing in a while was Monday night at the Jazz Kitchen — the regular no-cover evening perhaps suiting Ortwein's admission that not everything was as polished as a regularly working band of such professionals is capable of. The five-piece band is filled out by guitarist Charlie Ballantine, bassist Steve Dokken, and keyboardist Pat Finnigan.

It was fun to hear an Ortwein original, the quirky "Schizoid," in this setting after having heard it done by his other band, the Icarus Ensemble. Finnigan was fully engaged with the mockingly disturbed mood in his electric-piano solo, followed by a Hetrick showcase that led, after a suspenseful pause, back to the disjunct tune. That was among Ortwein's outings on soprano sax during the first set; another was "Song for Claire," a Jay Oliver tune for Weckl's band with some suggestions of a country ballad.

As a tenorman, Ortwein was on fire in the Weckl/Gary Meek burner, "Get to It," which included some snappy drum breaks by the co-leader. He remained on tenor for what followed, an attractive ballad titled "Sublimation," written by his son, Olas. The rendition included fine solos by Ballantine and Dokken, though the figure the bass guitarist placed behind the theme's return didn't quite fit.  Nonetheless, the inclusion of this piece can be counted a justifiable exercise in musical nepotism.

The set finale, the Weckl/Oliver "Big B, Little B," made for a rousing conclusion. The audience was treated to a Dokken solo in which he put his funky thumb to work and an extended Hetrick episode behind the band's riff, just before the Futet wrapped things up in order to take a break.

For me, far and away the most consistently inspired playing came in another Ortwein original, with a bilingual title whose English version is "Large Pepperoni With Extra Cheese."  It certainly whetted the appetite for more from this band. With Ortwein on baritone saxophone, the whole performance maintained a high level. Ballantine sounded like the poll winner NUVO readers recently dubbed him, and everyone else followed suit. The Futet played like a much more seasoned band than it is — perhaps a harbinger of good things to come.

Monday, October 19, 2015

The Bad Plus/Joshua Redman: A more than workable fusion of star players visits the Palladium

The Bad Plus blazed new trails in the genre of the jazz piano trio. Despite fundamental contributions of bassists and drummers to many great ensembles over the years, the focus had always tended to be on the pianist.

Similarly, if you put a high-profile horn into the mix, the tendency was to see it as the So-and-So Quartet, with So-and-So being a significant saxophone or trumpet player. Touring virtuosos playing with local rhythm sections reinforced that image.
Brother act: Iverson, Redman, Anderson, and King.

It's not surprising that Joshua Redman's association with the Bad Plus has resulted in a redefinition of this kind of quartet. In its appearance Sunday evening at the Palladium, the supergroup displayed its sturdiness resting equally on four supports — each of which has a distinct identity that's reliably blended into an ensemble presentation.

Bassist Reid Anderson delivered laid-back program commentary and, near the end, an improvised song resting upon his band-mates' notion of music from ancient Rome (a salute to the Palladium architecture). It was a high point in the cozy, effervescent rapport the band established with the mostly young audience.

There were several old Bad Plus favorites in the set list. Every time Redman fitted in perfectly. Among those I was familiar with, "Dirty Blonde," a Reid Anderson churner, sounded even better than the original, with a scorching, inspired Redman solo.  But isolating such moments misrepresents what the Bad Plus/Redman is capable of.

Why? Because every time you hear something remarkable from one player — whether it was Redman, Anderson, pianist Ethan Iverson, or drummer David King — it seems nestled in a four-way conversation. This was true even when one or more players dropped out for a while,  as in the Redman-King duel during "County Seat," a rollicking piece signaling its rootsy atmosphere with a yodeling tenor sax at the outset.

The concert opened with another piece from an early BP album, King's "1979 Semifinalist," then moved to a free-jazz excursion on "Faith Through Error." It soon became evident that Redman's facility, his command of the entire compass of his instrument, was capable of matching the range of any one of the Bad Plus players. Anything he played indicated the readiness of his protean style to be more than adequate for the band's breadth of expression, from an almost mystical lyricism to the most torrential outpourings four such adept players are capable of.

Iverson's embedded knowledge of both the classical and jazz piano traditions allows him to work in the most arcane melodic and harmonic inspirations, and everything makes sense.  Anderson also has a firm grasp of melody, and he's comfortable being independent rhythmically while always placing something complementary in the texture. King is that rare animal — a relentless groove merchant who is also a percussion colorist.

I remember when I first heard "Big Eater" (from the early "These Are the Vistas" CD) in concert, which feasted on its quartet expansion Sunday.  It was at Indy Jazz Fest, when Iverson introduced it at Military Park as the Bad Plus made its Indianapolis debut. He gestured toward the line of food vendors just outside the performance area and alluded to their appetizing temptations, which he intended to yield to.

The Bad Plus, despite the trio's aura of eccentricity, gives the impression in performance of being at home anywhere, even in the lofty glitz of the Palladium.  "I didn't know the Romans had put up buildings in Indiana," Anderson quipped near the end of Sunday's set. Maybe not, but it was "Veni, vidi, vici" for the Bad Plus/Joshua Redman on a bright fall evening in Carmel.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Dance Kaleidoscope, supplemented by young dancers, realizes an alumnus' Holocaust vision

In "Remembrances," Brian Honigbaum wanted to bring together his lifelong involvement in dance and his Jewish heritage, focusing on its greatest existential threat, the Holocaust.

Caitlin Negron and Timothy June play daughter and father in "Remembrances"
The result makes "Remembrances" both personal and universal. The work is the centerpiece of this weekend's Dance Kaleidoscope program, which is being performed at Clowes Hall to accommodate interest that goes beyond DK's regular audience. Honigbaum, long a resident of Texas, began his dance training at Butler, and his professional experience included a brief stint with DK.

The focus on a single family as representative of the millions of Jewish victims of Nazi racial ideology links together the variety of harrowing episodes Honigbaum singles out. The envelope of sound design gives further context, consisting of excerpts from Holocaust survivor interviews, plus music by Leonard Bernstein and John Williams, with recorded and live Jewish vocal music (with Cantor Janice Roger in box seating overlooking the stage) deepening the context.

Still, Honigbaum places the emphasis on collective suffering, even risking a literalism in his choreography to keep the mega-atrocity of Nazi terror fully before the audience. Yet even historical horrors, when treated in an artistic manner, need to be satisfying aesthetically in their presentation.  The choreography behind execution by machine gun ("Babi Yar") demonstrated that dancers can fall without injury better than anyone, but it didn't go beyond that — other than to underline the appalling inhumanity of the executioners. It may sound insensitive to want something aesthetically pleasing even when the theme is a grim one, but that is what we go to art for. Otherwise, reading the wealth of Holocaust testimony and literature would be sufficient.

I found "Remembrances" most insightful in two places: One was the scene with the dancers in tight shuffling formation depicting the transport of Jews to the death camps in cattle cars. Outstretched arms and hands, convulsive gestures indicating desperation, were mixed in with the carrying of overcome victims to the periphery in order to get minuscule breaths of fresh air. This episode stays in the mind as dance, not just a snapshot of victimization.

Similarly, the joyful play of girls whose burgeoning womanhood is about to be cut off — with Caitlin Negron as the Daughter in the family Honigbaum isolates — was memorable. Simple in gesture, moving in gentle circles with arms gracefully extended like something out of Botticelli, the childhood idyll is interrupted by demonic figures (fortunately not inclined to literalism — i.e., no swastika armbands or Gestapo uniforms) — a fateful intrusion that yields to the girls' wrenching despair.

The musical setting, a section of Bernstein's "Chichester Psalms" using Psalm 23 interrupted by Psalm 2 ("Why do the nations rage?"), allowed Honigbaum to blend the obliteration of Jewish life in the secular sphere with links to the Judaic spiritual heritage. This episode gave "Remembrances" an expressive breadth it often cried out for. Remembrance may be incumbent on all of us when it comes to addressing and resisting human moral depravity, but this ballet needed a more consistent reach toward the transfiguration of suffering into something richer and even artistically ennobled.

The company astonishes in "iconoGlass."
The lively, abstract revival of "iconoGlass," David Hochoy's rapt evocation of his Martha Graham training applied to the pulsating repetitions of Philip Glass' music, made for a welcome contrast to the historically rooted lamentations of "Remembrances."

The DK troupe reveled in the great horizontal expanse of the Clowes stage, set off by Laura E. Glover's marvelous lighting and dancers costumed by Cheryl Sparks so as to emphasize angles and movement efficiency.

"Satyagraha," Glass' opera upholding the spiritual basis of Mahatma Gandhi's movement for Indian independence, provided a backdrop for the softer, more soaring aspect of the choreography. Some tender duets offered a respite from the rapid dartings across the stage and the crisp turns and angular poses distributed among the dancers. As the finale took shape,  the "pop" side of Glass was exhibited with its foundation of pounding bass. The seemingly tireless virtuosity of DK (even with a couple of troupe veterans sidelined by injury) was amply on display.

Here's what I wrote about "iconoGlass" when it was presented in DK's downtown home two years ago:

[Photos by Chris Crawl]

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Short ISO Classical weekend makes its point substantially in Mendelssohn-Tchaikovsky-Elgar program

One full-length traversal of this weekend's Classical Series program by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra was not enough, but a schedule that has to make way for accompanying "Back to the Future" next Wednesday probably had something to do with the curtailment.

There was much that was wholly satisfying — beyond guest conductor Michael Francis' compact, enthralling oral program note from the podium — in the journey from Mendelssohn's "Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage" through the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto to Elgar's "Enigma" Variations. But Friday night was your only chance to make the trip with the ISO.

Francis is newly installed as conductor of the Florida Orchestra, and radiates the unassuming gregariousness easily associated with both his British origin and the laidback ambiance of Tampa Bay, where he's now settled with his wife and their infant daughter.

He proved adept as an accompanist, guiding the ISO smartly in support of Jinjoo Cho's fiery performance of the Tchaikovsky concerto. Cho, gold medalist at last year's International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, astonished with her firm, large tone at the outset.

To my ears, it took her a while to personalize this warhorse. Up until the first-movement cadenza, her phrasing was lush and pretty much uninflected. When it came to the cadenza, she gave herself plenty of room to breathe and displayed a good sense of drama.

Michael Francis made a successful return visit to the ISO.
The remainder of the first movement sparkled, the Canzonetta was pure balm (with particularly fine coordination between soloist and orchestra), and the finale featured Cho's consistently incisive articulation of the off-to-the-races portion and the kind of peasant heartiness in the slow music that famously offended Eduard Hanslick's critical nose almost a century-and-a-half ago.

On Indianapolis' first distinctly chilly evening in months, the soloist stoked our memories of the season just past with her encore, a bluesy unaccompanied arrangement of Gershwin's "Summertime," with the theme attractively stated in canon.

Francis and the ISO caught the becalmed mood of the first part of "Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage" perfectly, which made the transition to the energetic second half of the piece all the more exciting. The  ensemble exhilaration was well-maintained right through to the triumph of trumpets and chords of gratitude for safe arrival in harbor at the very end.

After intermission came the work no British conductor can fail to put across as a masterpiece. Or so one supposes. Francis drew from the ISO a delightfully variegated performance. In his podium remarks, he briefly alluded to attempts to tease out the mystery of the theme's origin, dismissing them to focus on an anecdote suggesting that what the composer came up with as the work's foundation was purely himself. Francis' viewpoint is well worth respect, though I'll admit to a fondness for the theory that Elgar's theme is a version of what Mozart presents in the "Andante" of the "Prague" Symphony.

At any rate, I should call attention to the sublime hushed mood he and the ISO established over the "Nimrod" Variation, the most emotionally penetrating music Elgar ever wrote.  Cello, viola, and clarinet solos (the last one from the new assistant principal, Samuel Rothstein) were all first-rate, and the brass sections were formidable and unified in the 11th variation.

Its ruddy vigor heralded the finale three variations later, which made for a stirring summation of this multifaceted composer's salute to some friends and close associates. As played Friday evening it was, as Francis also proposed, a Q.E.D. of the universal need to burst out of solitude and embrace other people in their sometimes exasperating eccentricities and unique lovableness.

P.S. For the historically minded, here's my assessment of Cho's performance of a Mozart concerto in the classical finals of the 2014 IVCI:

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Triple Czech: First-rate German piano trio delivers a nifty program to launch Ensemble Music season

Bohemian rhapsodies: ATOS Trio played a Czech program.
The three musicians who got together in 2003 to form the ensemble that played Wednesday night at the Indiana History Center took care of the naming problem by going the all-caps route.

How the ATOS Trio boosted its American profile offers a key to the solution they found: The 2007 Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson International Trio Award allowed Annette von Hehn, Stefan Heinemeyer, and Thomas Hoppe to play 20 U.S. concerts, including Carnegie Hall.

The group honored in the award's name has the mouth-filling identification of its members, two of whom — husband and wife Jaime Laredo and Sharon Robinson — were for several years on the IU Jacobs School of Music faculty.

Often abbreviated to K-L-R, that trio didn't have the advantage of the shortest last names of any possible piano trio, the Ax-Kim-Ma ensemble, nor the difficult choice of finding an appropriate name that didn't rely on members' surnames, as the seminal Beaux Arts Trio (and many of its descendants) did.

With an "O" thrown in for euphony, ATOS is derived from the first-name initials of violinist Von Hehn, pianist Hoppe, and cellist Heinemeyer. In this concert, they further showed their genius for concentration by presenting "The Czech Album," works for their instrumental combination by Josef Suk, Bedrich Smetana, and Antonin Dvorak.

The Dvorak work properly occupied the second half of the concert, both by virtue of its length and its superiority to the other two works, as worth hearing as they were. Trio No. 3 in F minor, op. 65, has an expansive, four-movement layout. And it benefits as well from its comprehensive symphonic unity. In the tightly organized first movement, for example, everything sort of dovetails. There are no rough seams, and none of the material is isolated or left hanging in mid-air.

ATOS displayed its full engagement with the Bohemian spirit in the "Allegretto grazioso" second movement. The lyrical intensity of the slow movement that followed was under firm control, yet  never sounded rigid. The contrasts in the finale, reminiscent of some of the far expressive reaches of the works presented earlier, were made the most of. The work's dramatic arc tended toward pure joy, and it was in that spirit that ATOS' enchanting performance concluded.

Smetana's Trio in G minor, op. 15, was created during a period of personal difficulty for the composer, a troubled man who nonetheless counts as the founding father of the Bohemian national school. There is a "furiant" evocation in the Presto finale, to be sure, but the piece generally speaks an intimate language unrelated to nationalism. It verges on the bombastic at times, but at length its variety, including explosive accents and dramatic pauses precisely timed by the players, wins the listener over. There are charming solos, well presented as the first movement got under way by Von Hehn and as a piquant lyrical contrast in the last movement by Heinemeyer.

The concert opened with a work less anguished than the Smetana, less elaborately polished than the Dvorak: Suk's Trio in C minor, op. 2.  It is sturdily if rather obviously structured. Suk displays a resourcefulness signaled by how convincingly he turns the salonish second-movement theme into something more substantial, developing it into vigorous and borderline wild music.

The elfin sprightliness of the finale found the ATOS musicians at their peak of coordination; it was where I first noticed  that its members' pinpoint rapport tends to establish itself with a minimum of eye contact. There seemed to be something in the air onstage throughout the concert, creating a telepathic unanimity with a minimum of apparent cues. In all three works, timing and dynamics had exquisite precision, making ATOS' Czech album deserving of rapt perusal.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Classical Clickbait: 7 Celebrity Masterpieces That Have Aged Horribly

"Behold, all flesh is as the grass" — musical flesh, too.
I keep seeing these ugly photos of unrecognizable famous people at the foot of some articles online.

Who is this woman? I think as I stare at her grotesque features. And it usually is a woman, with wrinkles like W.H. Auden,  swollen lips, discolored skin, strawlike or matted hair, eyes like cavernous dark pools. Sometimes all facial features are pulled back toward the ears as if under the impact of G forces.

Clicking on the lines underneath the photo, which run something like "17  Celebrities Who Aged Horribly" or "10 Celebrities Who Ruined Themselves With Plastic Surgery," doesn't tempt me. Whole galleries of horrors are promised. I pass them by; I find enough to revolt me nowadays in the political sphere.

Yet opening these galleries must interest a lot of people, or I wouldn't keep running across such creep-fests tied with other sideshow items, like cans to a dog's tail, to interesting articles.

But I am tempted to adopt the idea for something that interests me: classical music, and the unmistakable narrowing of the repertoire. There are favorites of concert presenters and (to the extent they exist anymore) classical record companies and radio stations that have aged horribly. Like the celebrities, maybe they have a few attractive features worth recalling, but they are now suffering from overexposure, hard living, and cosmetic tinkering.

It is only in the spirit of charity that I offer here my list of 7 Horribly Aged Celebrity Masterpieces. Photos do not represent music well, so I've included brief, frightening verbal descriptions of each decrepit work, a few of them prematurely worn out. These pieces, to paraphrase Rossini's quip about Wagner, have good senior moments but bad senior quarter-hours. Here, then, in the form of diagnostic summaries from weary caretakers, are musical spooks to herald the Halloween season.

1. Antonio Vivaldi, "The Four Seasons"

A climate-change denier, he's an inveterate watcher of the Weather Channel. He gets lost in the wonders of seasonal contrasts, and never stops buttonholing visitors to make sure they notice the barking dog, the weeping shepherd, the buzzing flies, the hunting dogs running the exhausted prey to ground. If you don't mark such details, he loses patience with you and goes back to discussing the weather in vague terms he's certain you'll understand.

2. Carl Orff, "Carmina Burana"

A Latin teacher bemoaning the fading of her specialty, she whiles away the time telling dirty jokes and praising the flowers she used to cultivate. Has a weakness for strong drink that must be watched. Persistent requests for particular foods, like roasted swan and tuna. The latter demand is accompanied by recurrent shouts that sound like "Go for tuna!" But no matter how much tuna we bring her, she's never satisfied. Like many alcoholics, she fancies herself a philosopher.

3. Peter Tchaikovsky, "1812 Overture"

A blustering American patriot, he ignores his roots in an ancient European conflict, despite a labored fondness for the Russian imperial hymn, which he bawls out at the slightest provocation. He's a terror in his wheelchair. Excessive sentimentality drives even the most well-intentioned of visitors away, particularly when it climaxes in startling episodes of untreatable flatulence.

4. G. F. Handel, "Messiah"

Another patient afflicted with a confused sense of his place in time. "I love Christmas!" he declares. "What's wrong with that?" So the Christmas season is where he implacably places himself, despite his fondness for biblical texts that have nothing to do with the Nativity. Sneakily anti-Semitic, he insists that all his scraps of scriptural wisdom convey just one message. That is summed up about two-thirds of the way through his repetitious monologue, when he insists any visitors immediately leap to their feet to show respect before settling into their seats again for his peroration. He bids farewell interminably.

5. Sergei Rachmaninoff, Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor

Several facelifts resulted in a version of herself she could finally accept, her features somewhat flowing together in a manner that suits her glamorous self-image. She continues to dress immodestly and tends to overaccessorize. Vision is cloudy, but her hearing is sharp. An enthusiastic conversationalist, she doesn't mind interruptions, seeing them as confirmation of whatever she's just said. With somewhat dubious charm, she returns to her favorite themes and becomes depressed if visitors refrain from joining in.

6. Modest Mussorgsky/Maurice Ravel, "Pictures at an Exhibition"

Years ago he escaped withdrawn self-confinement to the piano bench and got out in the world. Flattered by the accouterments he acquired, he felt free to indulge his latent snobbery and cloying powers of observation while calling attention to his perky stroll, which he calls a promenade. His wandering must be closely observed, as it may signal the onset of dementia. That tentative diagnosis is reinforced by his incoherent nattering about a witch and her bizarre home architecture just before he has her fly into a large urban barrier he describes with tedious bombast.

7. Gustav Holst, "The Planets"

She angrily responds to mistaken assumptions that she's all about astronomy, when in fact she is fascinated with Roman mythology. She exhausts herself with demonstrations of how thoroughly she understands Mars and Jupiter, talking about them as if they were family and jabbing the floor with her cane for emphasis. Any visit with her deteriorates eventually into pathetic wordless drifting, an indication that it's time for her nap. You disturb her at your peril.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra launches a new era with IVCI medalist and the formal debut of only its third music director

The air of celebration was bright at the Schrott Center Sunday afternoon, despite the shadow over the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra concert due to the recent death of longtime hornist Kent Leslie, to whose memory the concert was dedicated.

ICO music director Matthew Kraemer
The celebratory air was immediately established as new music director Matthew Kraemer mounted the podium to lead the 31-year-old orchestra in Maurice Ravel's arrangement of Claude Debussy's "Danse (Tarantelle Styrienne)." It established the dance theme of the ICO's first concert of the 2015-16 season. In the second half, which a previous engagement didn't allow me to hear, the theme was reinforced by performances of Dvorakk's Czech Suite, op. 39, and Ligeti's "Concerto Romanesc" (Romanian Concerto).

The remainder of the first half — after the Debussy/Ravel had set the upbeat mood and showed off the ICO's nicely honed ensemble sound in the hall's fine acoustics — focused on the guest soloist, Tessa Lark. Lark won the silver medal at last year's International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, standing out not only for her captivating performances but also for being the only finalist not of South Korean origin or heritage.

Tessa Lark shoulders her prizewinning responsibilities well.
She had enchanted the near-capacity audience long before she shook off her concert slippers and played a barefoot encore — a brief, effervescent fiddle tune drawn upon her Kentucky roots — that had everybody smiling. When shod, she performed the Belgian composer Henri Vieuxtemps' Violin Concerto No. 5 in A minor, following it up with Beethoven's Romance No. 2 in F major.

The concerto features a demanding cadenza loaded with double stops that redeems the superficiality of much of the first-movement material. The slow movement is in the tender but not very deep-seated manner of the French tradition of lyricism. In the outer movements, the vigor and firm coordination of the orchestral tuttis buoyed up Lark's solo playing.

The Beethoven Romance displayed a soaring, more consistent, better founded lyricism of which Lark showed herself to be a master. The IVCI connection to Indianapolis continues to provide the area's orchestras with return appearances by excellent young concert artists. Lark's engagement to help launch the ICO season was an admirable continuation of that legacy. And Kraemer seems poised to extend the orchestra's own legacy of refined, emotionally involving performances.

IRT reweaves Fitzgerald's web of words in sensitive stage adaptation of "The Great Gatsby"

Straight-shooter Nick earns Jay Gatsby's trust.
The click-clack of Nick Carraway's Underwood typewriter makes the final sounds after he has spoken some of the most marvelous words ever set down on an American novel's last page. Projected onto the rear of a darkened stage, the typed letters slowly form the words: "The Great Gatsby."

It's the right final touch in Simon Levy's adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic, Indiana Repertory Theatre's season-opening production. Presented in this way, the title puts a seal on Nick's narrative, as if the upright young man's perception of Jay Gatsby could be summed up in a sudden inspiration and that any question of what greatness really is for Americans is best represented in a one-word highball  mixing irony and genuine tribute.

Zach Kenney's forthright portrayal of Carraway — a hearty, circumspect, devoted narrator of Gatsby's mystery and undeniable stature — was winning from the start. I was a little worried when he swallowed the last word in Nick's initial description of Gatsby as someone "who represented everything for which I have unaffected scorn." The audience needs to hear that "scorn," and probably did (and will) at other performances.

Perhaps I am guilty of fetishizing Fitzgerald's words, but only because they are so respectfully treated in Levy's cunning stage version. At Saturday's matinee, Kenney consistently sounded their magnificent notes, however, while reflecting his character's decency, curiosity, and — considering the ambition Nick's brought with him from the Midwest to the glamorous East Coast — his humility.

Some things had to be jettisoned in the telling, of course. The novel, whose swift movement and concision are partly responsible for its being a required text for students too young to understand it, includes a back story Nick has been privileged to glean from his new friend.

Daisy Buchanan (Hillary Clemens) in her element.
In this stage version, Dan Cody, the role model for the hardscrabble James Gatz's turning himself into the well-situated, legendary Jay Gatsby, is missing. The Horatio Alger Jr.-style pluck-and-luck story has setbacks that only reinforce the burgeoning Gatsby's goals. "A universe of ineffable gaudiness spun itself out in his brain," Fitzgerald writes, and this lively, eventually glum show bodies forth the result.

The omission of the mining millionaire and yachtsman Cody, even as a ghost, throws a little too much of Gatsby's romantic vision of himself onto his relationship with Daisy Buchanan, played with brittle, electrifying allure by Hillary Clemens. There's a lot of the farmboy Gatz's adolescent dreaming wrapped up in a more fundamental American idea: that the sky's the limit, that you can imagine your identity to start with, patting it together out of clay the way God made Adam, and then set about assuming it. And, yes, this imaginative grasp of your chosen destiny will often be nakedly materialistic.

Fitzgerald believed, not without irony, that shallow idealism was as worth serious attention as the more lofty kind. To take giddy joy in the trappings of wealth, as Gatsby, Daisy and Nick do in this show's marvelous riot among large racks of expensive shirts, is an entitlement worth defending.

That's why Daisy's husband Tom, a star college athlete who's morphed easily into a rake and snob, spouts off about the rise of "the colored races" in ways that are alarmingly perennial. When David Folsom as Tom first came onstage, I thought (as I did to a degree about the entire cast): "Wow — perfect!" As the title character, Matt Schwader projected command of those areas of Gatsby's life that made him highly regarded for a while as well as vulnerability in the one area where he felt defeated.
Nick (Zach Kenney) is wary as Myrtle and the McKees show themselves a good time.

Teagan Rose displayed the sparkle and smooth self-regard of the celebrity golf pro Jordan Baker. Her troubled romantic fling with Nick was nicely judged under director Peter Amster's guiding hand. They are truly thrown together, as the romantically miserable Daisy has intended, but more by the magnetism of Gatsby, in and out of fulfillment, than by any real affinity.

A more ominous, imprisoning mismatch is that of the Wilsons, a grease monkey and his sluttish wife played by Ryan Artzberger and Angela Ingersoll like a sordid realization of the William Carlos Williams line "The pure products of America go crazy."  Charles Goad and Constance Macy were vivid in a couple of secondary roles; their pairing as the McKees brings to the fore Fitzgerald's gift for sketchy satire. Goad also played the shady Meyer Wolfsheim, softened in this production (not quite justifiably) and frankly less reliant on an unsavory stereotype.

Conspicuous nonconsumption: Daisy, Gatsby, and Nick frolic among the shirts.
The production team's little essays are always worth reading in the IRT's production books. Everything costume designer Tracy Dorman, lighting designer Thomas C. Hase, and composer and sound designer Victoria DeIorio say about their respective approaches is borne out astonishingly well by their work. Though "The Great Gatsby" is more than a period piece, its world is circumscribed by the social phenomena Fitzgerald was so sensitive to; IRT's production team is on to this limitation, if that's what it is.

H.L. Mencken, a champion of the brass-tacks realist and graceless stylist Theodore Dreiser, dismissed "The Great Gatsby" as "a glorified anecdote." A later social commentator named Bob Dylan nicely skewered the cluelessness of his straw man Mr. Jones by singing: "You've read all of F. Scott Fitzgerald's books, you're very well read, it's well known; but something is happening here and you don't know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?"

Like IRT artistic director Janet Allen, I too have read all of F. Scott Fitzgerald's books. And I can wincingly appreciate Dylan's insight that Fitzgerald's view of life was a bit of a closed circuit (a phrase Mary McCarthy applied, more accurately, to J.D. Salinger).  And that every age will find its own spokesmen with their own levels of insight into what matters and what warnings are worth delivering. But somehow Fitzgerald, throughout this book and more fleetingly elsewhere, managed to render his era with a magic and perspicacity that endures.

This production of "The Great Gatsby" is worth seeing for that reason. And it will return you to the book, which ends in a wise blend of nature and history and dreaming. That beautiful last page may even make you weep, as Carraway recalls the Dutch sailors who first explored for the sake of white European restlessness the landscape Gatsby was to briefly triumph in, when "man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder."

Saturday, October 10, 2015

ISO Classical Series: Beethoven's 'Missa Solemnis' with the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir makes its difficult way into our hearts

"He dreams, yet his idea has body," Georges Bizet wrote in praise of Beethoven, marveling at how thoroughly worked the German master's inspirations seem — nothing tossed off or nonchalantly soliciting easy applause.
Hans Graf

The composer of "Carmen" was not referring to Missa Solemnis, op. 123, in particular. But no piece by Beethoven is more representative of a genius' imagination harnessed to struggle and earned triumph.

That was evident in the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir and the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's performance of Missa Solemnis Friday night at Hilbert Circle Theatre.

The concert was under the seasoned guidance of guest conductor Hans Graf, with the ISC prepared by its scrupulous, insightful artistic director, Eric Stark. Four guest soloists put in a hard evening's work as well: soprano Cyndia Sieden, mezzo-soprano Julia Boulianne, tenor Colin Balzer, and bass-baritone Nathan Berg.

Everyone was dreaming the same substantial dream.  And no one did so more effectively than ISO concertmaster Zachary De Pue, who played the lengthy violin solo in Sanctus with tenderness and appropriate uplift. Every phrase sang out and was sustained in coordination first with the solo quartet, then with the chorus.

The Grand Mass in D cost the composer several years of intense work at the outset and climax of his final period. Its 90-minute expanse and sizable performing forces never contradict its intimate, personal address to the Almighty.

His handling of the Latin text of the Ordinary emphasizes the centrality of belief, with a turn toward the woes of the world in the finale, Agnus Dei. That's where martial music breaks into the choir's oft-repeated plea for peace, an episode that in this performance delivered the right controlled air of disturbance and borderline panic.

Though never a faithful churchgoer, scholars tell us, Beethoven was no modernist in religious matters. The mystery of the Godhead focused his attention, and that faith comes through in great detail in this work. Not surprisingly, Jesus was less important to him as an ethical teacher. Biographically, the composer's sly dealing with several publishers while Missa solemnis was in progress underlines that point.

As Friday's performance got under way, I was struck by the exquisite phrasing of "Kyrie eleison," an appeal for mercy that seemed to exhale unswerving faith as the choir sang the words. This note of reverence was maintained even in the face of disruptions and explosions that Beethoven's notion of his task required him to put in the musicians' way.

The work's difficulties are expressive as well as technical. In several places, the choir is challenged to articulate the same material the orchestra has just presented. This can hardly be done crisply, especially in the whirlwind climax of the Gloria, with its jumble of tempos and textures.  Nonetheless, the ISC largely had the full measure of the piece. When the technical demands weren't nearly insurmountable, the choir's expressive aplomb was stunning: The vast range between the initial shout of "Gloria" and the hushed next line, "et in terra pax," was precisely presented. The mostly quiet fugue at the end of the Credo was a yoke the choir bore easily, as if its burden were light.

It's germane to linger for a bit on the inscription Beethoven wrote on the score he presented to his devoted patron, Archduke Rudolph. It's usually translated as "From the heart — may it return — to the heart." The odd punctuation is in the original, too. Note how the grammar of the sentence is about motion, while the punctuation suggests stasis.

This could be the composer's deliberate representation of the polarities of tradition — the heritage of church music that he studied and carefully departed from here — as well as the innovative subjectivity he described to Rudolph this way in an 1819 letter to his patron: "In the world of art, as in the whole of our great creation, freedom and progress are the main objectives. And though we moderns are not quite as far advanced in solidity as our ancestors, yet the refinement of our customs has enlarged many of our conceptions as well."

Friday's performance encompassed both the solidity and the freedom of Beethoven's achievement in Missa Solemnis. The result has moved many people over the past two centuries, however much or little they share Beethoven's faith. A half-century ago, my father, a church musician who admitted to being increasingly skeptical in his later years, spoke of how much it had meant to him to to be in a Missa Solemnis  chorus made up in part of choir directors gathered for a workshop conducted by Robert Shaw. As Michael Steinberg notes in his essay on Missa Solemnis, Shaw probably conducted the work more than anyone in history.
Robert Shaw and my father talk about Beethoven's masterpiece.

In the summer of 1965, he came to Oakland University in Michigan for a master class with choral conductors culminating in a performance of Beethoven's great Mass. A newspaper photographer took this photo during a rehearsal break; Shaw autographed the print, my father's white shirt providing a convenient place in the photo to write "Who? Me?"

Now, Richard W. Harvey was not fond of Beethoven's writing for chorus in the finale of the Ninth Symphony, finding it punishing on singers and audience alike. Yet he was thoroughly charmed by Shaw's way with the Missa Solemnis.

But doesn't it have lots more of that "Ode to Joy" thing going on? I asked him a few days after the performance, which I did not get to hear. Dad maintained that under the leadership of perhaps the greatest choral conductor America has produced, Missa Solemnis had been uniquely persuasive.

Many other music-lovers inclined to skepticism — whether on musical or theological grounds — have been similarly won over, and will continue to be, given such performances as the one we heard Friday night.

In Bizet's terms, Beethoven's most earnest and elaborate dream endures, thanks to its compelling idea and the body that supports it, from "Lord, have mercy" to "Grant us peace."