Sunday, November 29, 2015

'A Christmas Carol' at IRT displays imaginative elan, underlines its moral lesson

The rude thump of a heavy walking stick interrupts a flash-mob-like rendition of a Christmas carol to start off Indiana Repertory Theatre's production of "A Christmas Carol."

On opening night Saturday, it had the intended startling effect — a real one for the audience and me, a well-rehearsed one for the carolers divided by the frosty approach of Ebenezer Scrooge. He strides without speaking through the stunned singers on the way to his office.
Bah! Humbug!: Scrooge casts a disdainful eye at Christmas.

The arresting opening scene places the mean-spirited miser in a social context, where we will not see him again in his real self until his conversion near the end, after guided visions by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come. Scrooge famously learns from those visits — a posthumous gift thrust upon him by a miserable ghost, his deceased business partner — the personal benefits of charity.

Among our traditional carols, the interrupted "Good King Wenceslas" most vividly lifts up the blessings of charitable works, whose purpose is lost on Scrooge. Immediately, then, the audience can ponder the heavy soul work that lies ahead. Courtney Sale directs the production with a liberating style, getting to the moral and fantastic essentials of the story.

 IRT's signature element on the raked set — that lovely snow, both falling and fallen — is played with, as well as walked through and brushed off. Handfuls are tossed at the audience now and then, the rehabilitated Scrooge flops down in it to make snow angels, and it's imaginatively put to use as the components of the Cratchit family's joyous, hard-won feast.

Dickens' language is intact, its distinctive, emotionally charged narrative rhetoric faithfully preserved in Tom Haas' adaptation. The story moves forward through choral-speaking passages and solo narrative asides, in addition to dialogue. Most actors play several roles and move set-pieces and props in and out of place. Further displaying her freedom from realism, Sale has her cast not only steering clear of London accents, but also following the tonal contours of Midwestern American. And as the play progresses, there are several "bro hugs" at moments that exceed Victorian notions of propriety, but fit dramatically.

There is plenty of delightful filigree, as well as more poignant touches, along the way: Robert Neal's "portly gentleman," his request for a charitable contribution having been rebuffed by the miserly Scrooge, rolls his eyes in disbelief at the approach
The Spirit of Christmas Present encompasses jollity and dread.
of the repentant miser. Constance Macy's "plump sister" at nephew Fred's party sits down at the piano, turning to chortle self-consciously before playing. The break-up scene between Belle (Eliza Simpson) and Young Scrooge (Will Mobley) is insightfully staged; the couple is never on the same level, matching their temperamental disparity.

The three Spirits drive home their crucial points in effecting Scrooge's change of heart. For the first time, a youth (Grayson Molin) is cast as the Spirit of Christmas Past. Dickens' description of this character is unrealizable even with today's stage magic (a department in which IRT excels), so the choice here is an apt interpretation, since scenes of Scrooge's early life are recapitulated during this visit. David Alan Anderson enjoys a reprise of his hearty portrayal of the Spirit of Christmas Present.

Marley's ghost wears the chains he forged in life.
Chuck Goad, a former IRT Scrooge, has never looked and sounded better (read: worse, but in the best sense) as Marley's Ghost. His dire admonitions to his business partner would soften a heart of stone. And that, indeed, is their job.

Ryan Artzberger's Scrooge does more than snarl before his transformation; he sometimes sets forth his views offhandedly and with flashes of wit, making his dismissive anger all the more vivid in contrast.

The first time I saw him play Scrooge, I was struck by how completely the character was overcome by the realization he had not missed the opportunity to celebrate Christmas properly. "I don't know anything," Scrooge exclaims. "I'm quite a baby." And Artzberger as Scrooge was suddenly another person, "beside himself" in the New Testament phrase reflecting the misplaced concerns of Jesus' friends about him. In this production, Scrooge's giddiness persists to the very end. "Beside himself" gets it.

I confess that Artzberger's arid, wheezy giggle became slightly tiresome before the final "God bless us all, everyone!" My naughty self said: "I could almost do with a bit of the old Scrooge about now." But my less naughty self saw the wisdom of hitting Scrooge's transformation hard.

Ebenezer Scrooge, whose very name is a reflection of Dickens' genius, is one of those rare fictional characters who have become myths, along with Huckleberry Finn, Sir John Falstaff, and a few others. A mythical character is large enough to shape and reflect our values (including the ones we are reluctant to acknowledge) as well as to represent a fascinating, three-dimensional person.

Through Scrooge, both as himself and "beside himself," "A Christmas Carol" is an affirmation of hope — the meaning of the season at its most abstract and powerful. Though Dickens wraps things up in a tidy Christmas bow at the end, it is useful to take Scrooge's vow to "keep Christmas" as a promise whose permanence lies beyond the story.

The Cratchits sit down at Christmas, sustained by love, driven by hope.
Just as love sustains the Cratchit family, wonderfully filled out in this production as headed by Joshua Coomer and Jennifer Johansen, hope drives them forward day after difficult day. Dickens understood hope  as mankind's ultimate resource, though he knew it could be destroyed by Want and Ignorance, forsaken children who creep zombielike from under the robes of the Spirit of Christmas Present.

In the essay "Of Names," Michel de Montaigne exclaims: "Oh, what a brave faculty is hope, which in a mortal subject and in a moment, usurps infinity, immensity, eternity!"

That brave faculty thus rivals some of the attributes of God in "A Christmas Carol," and the IRT  production buoyantly endorses its power and spiritual resonance.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Thursday, November 26, 2015

X marks the spot: For the tenth time, Phoenix Theatre digs for yuletide treasure

The Phoenix Theatre has used the tried-and-true total of ten to wax lightly nostalgic in "A Very Phoenix Xmas X."

Gayle Steigerwald ornaments the show.
A decade ago, its holiday variety show with a bit of an edge debuted at 749 North Park Avenue. As narrator Gayle Steigerwald pointed out at the new production's preview Wednesday, what began life as a jibe at Christmas-season traditions has itself become a Christmas-season tradition.

Just as consumers supplement shopping lists with goodies for themselves, "Phoenix Xmas X" is a blend of self-tribute and genuine holiday spirit. The audience is adequately warned by the show's subtitle (modestly clad in lower case): "oh come, let us adore us."

Steigerwald's narration reminisces, and there's no more fitting Phoenix stalwart to do so. Her repeat appearances, which serve to smooth the way between set changes, include fanciful costumes celebrating the season's decorative mania and her previous roles in the production.

Santa's ho-ho-ho encounters girl's WTF.
In this anthology of freshly minted sketches, Steigerwald has one starring role. In "Ms. Claus," she's an applicant for the vacant post of Santa Claus after a scandal has forced the previous occupant's early retirement. It's an amusing plea on behalf of gender equality in the workplace, a cause fueled here by a little well-placed bribery. A panel played by Paul Collier Hansen, Eric J. Olson and Lincoln Slentz scrutinizes her application — all in seasonally official garb and burdened with ridiculous beards.

Santa Claus stereotyping also gets some ribbing in "Jolly Saint Dick," with Hansen making the customary flue drop at the home of a snarky prepubescent girl (Olivia Huntley). The sketch makes a little too much of the Jolly Old Elf losing his persona under provocation and going on a foul-mouthed rant, but there's a sweet message underlying it all.

The toxic boss that Santa has long been in much Christmas satire (dating back at least to S.J. Perelman's "Waiting for Santy" (1936)) is turned into a Scrooge-like present-day oppressor in a caustic song by Lizz Leiser. It features one of Tim Brickley's apt instrumental tracks accompanying the ensemble. Apparently, audience members will be filling the ugly-boss role as one did Wednesday, working from cue cards and saying ungracious things between employee eruptions.

The energy, wit and rapid pace of a couple of duo sketches were among the show's high points. In
Sara Riemen gets a surprise call in "Regifting."
"Regifting," Scot Greenwell and Sara Riemen play an adult brother and sister anxiously figuring out how to counter an impending visit from a friend they're certain will embarrass them in the gift department. The prospective hosts go  frantic trying to one-up Peggy without making the mistake of boomerang regifting.

Greenwell was also marvelous fully decked out as a talking Christmas tree in dialogue with its Jewish owner (Olson) in "Oh, Tannenbaum," a brilliant contribution from the dependable "Very Phoenix Xmas" writer Mark Harvey Levine, a noted specialist in short plays.

The annual silly season is combined with the current (and relentless) political silly season  — oh, how they deserve each other! — in "Commandeer in Chief." It entails elaborate mockery of the current presidential candidates in a debate moderated by Riemen, who is nearly a dead ringer for Rachel Maddow. Everyone else is cast as pawing, prancing, snorting reindeer. In the lengthy, full-cast sketch, Rob Johansen lets his gift for travesty rip, with the ensemble spiritedly managed by director Bryan Fonseca.

"Oh, Tannenbaum," by the way, segues into a finely honed ensemble chorus in Hebrew (with a projected English translation) seriously embracing the seasonal celebration of Hanukkah.

Eric J. Olson tries to process a talking tree.
Clever faceless costumes, technical adroitness, pantomime (by Johansen, Riemen, and Lincoln Slentz),  Mariel Greenlee's choreography and prerecorded dialogue by Tom Horan made enchanting work of "Shiny New Toy," whose title object shifts among the variety of soundtracks available this time of year. The technological frontiers of the holiday were further explored with a stunning visual punch line in "Putting Away the Decorations," with Johansen and Slentz as an apparent father and son.

Technology enables the kind of musical saturation that will wear just about everyone down over the next few weeks. It is the object of some spoofing — well brought off by Johansen, Riemen and guest vocalist Deb Mullins — in "Miracle on 34th Street vs. Exile on Main St.," a sketch with a somewhat belabored premise to the effect that even a rock nightclub can't help being infected by hackneyed Christmas songs. The parody elements were largely lost on me, hopelessly nonconversant with rock as I am.

The Phoenix players, though not uniformly the best lot of the past decade, sound and look committed to the material from start to finish. Through Dec. 20, you can follow them in merry measure while they tell of yuletide treasure.

And of course you can add your own fa-la-la-la-las along the way and in retrospect. Here are mine from last year and the year before. "A Very Phoenix Xmas X" is a good way to escape the fa-la-la-la-blahs that threaten to overtake us all as the season grinds on.

Two drumsticks and a wishbone: A Thanksgiving Hymn on Themes of Robert Frost

This one day devoted to Gratitude
May not be enough to establish the mood,
Especially since sages are sure it's allied
With all the insatiable urgings of Pride.

We turn now to one of them, dear Robert Frost,
Who never rejoiced without counting the cost:
The ambivalence of his "The Road Not Taken"
Pride and gratitude contend when we sit down to this.
Can leave almost anyone's confidence shaken.

How grateful was he for the choice of two ways?
How deep were his sighs for unknowable days
That might have been happy, or perhaps not so much?
Who rightly decides for the best in the clutch?

It's certain that thankfulness had little chance
To trip the fantastic in this doubtful dance
As, near poem's end, "I" gets up twice alone
To declare that his Pride can cavort on its own:

"Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
"I took the one less traveled by."
The chest swells just slightly, all doubt set aside,
And the hike through the woods begins hitting its stride.

Robert Frost
So let us think now, as we turn to our feasts,
That what separates us for sure from the beasts
Is a mixture of Gratitude that makes us feel good
And Pride, which will always take more than it should.

Their value to us means division of labor —
Let's celebrate both with pipe, horn, and tabor:
The grandma cooks turkey, the grandfather carves;
If Pride is not satisfied, Gratitude starves.

To be truly thankful, we must work on our needs,
Feel proud of ourselves. On this everyone feeds:
Sometimes false, sometimes true, at bottom there's Pride.
So, as Frost advised elsewhere: 'Provide, provide!"

Monday, November 23, 2015

Old Possum still carries weight: T.S. Eliot's 'objective correlative' and the narrative economy of 'Spotlight'

The "Spotlight" principals in a rare moment of inaction.
I'm not a movie critic, and I try not to play one on this blog, to paraphrase a commercial cliche. But I found "Spotlight," the current movie focusing on the Boston Globe's exposure of widespread sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests, worth a brief note.

In addition to its riveting story, crisp dialogue, focused acting, and — of course — realistic scrutiny of the perils and rewards of newspaper work, where I spent my career, "Spotlight" is remarkable to me for never having a wasted scene. There's no fluff or filler material. Even the shortest scenes unfailingly contribute something vital to the whole.

Two of them in particular seem to me to exemplify on the big screen an old lit-crit notion first put forward by T.S. Eliot nearly a century ago in an essay on "Hamlet": what he called the "objective correlative," which the young poet-critic claimed was "the only way of expressing emotion in the form of art."  He defined it as "a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion."

T.S. Eliot about the time he came up with "objective correlative."
There is a marvelous objective correlative in two separate scenes of "Spotlight," both involving the Globe investigative team's one female member, Sacha Pfeiffer (played by Rachel McAdams).

In the first, her stress in pursuing the difficult story, interviewing victims who either turned her away or broke down in mid-interview, finds an objective correlative in her awkward attempt to shove a dishwasher rack into the machine. We've all done this slambangingly while thinking of something else. In "Spotlight," the frustrated gesture is enough to stand for the emotional toll that working on the investigation takes on handling everyday domestic chores, even the simplest ones. As with the other members of the Spotlight team, Sacha's personal life gets shelved or battered in all sorts of ways as work on the supremely difficult story goes forward.

The other objective correlative occurs when Sacha, a lapsed Catholic who only attends Mass when her devout grandmother asks her to, is sitting down with Nana as she reads, crestfallen, the initial published story. The Globe is laid out before her; she scrutinizes the text slowly, with a pained expression. Suddenly she looks up and asks: "Sacha, will you get me a glass of water?"

Water, which represents so much that's germane to this story, from the first Catholic rite of infant baptism through the biblical thirst for righteousness, is crucial.  The request is the formula for expressing the emotion so many faithful Catholics felt at the revelations; it sums up the wrenching effects of the sex-abuse scandal on the stability of faith.

Eliot's "casually introduced" term (the description is M.H. Abrams') continues to have relevance, especially when artists find ways of making words and acts perfectly overlay an emotion that it would be wasteful to lavish too much attention upon. This economy is part of what makes "Spotlight" a must-see film.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

No drums, no horns: Regina Carter and Kenny Barron combine for expert soft-spoken jazz

Generation gap bridged: Carter and Barron
Busy schedules keep the compatible duo of Kenny Barron and Regina Carter apart, so they understandably launch their concert appearances upon the solid foundation of (ironically) "Freefall," their 2001 collaboration on Verve.

So it was Saturday night at the Tarkington, Center for the Performing Arts, in Carmel. The pianist and the violinist closed the generation gap effortlessly once again (he's 72, she's 49), in a trim program of pieces mainly from that recording. They respond seamlessly to each other and come up with one effective moment after another.

Carter has brought to jazz violin a sensibility deeply rooted in the blues. Her instrument is ideal for bending pitches as adeptly as the best slide guitarist, and she knows all the tricks. The violin's keening tone and variety of articulation can approach the expressive range, from plaintive to exuberant, of the classic blues singers.

Her technical adroitness matches well with Barron's crisp piano style and cornucopia of well-turned phrases. And the pianist is also well-versed in the blues, with newly minted flourishes that dependably steer away from cliches.

It was no surprise, then, that the concert opened and closed with the blues, both tunes by Thelonious Monk. "Misterioso" found Carter a bit scratchy to start things off, but the spacing of the theme in partnership with Barron came off attractively before the blues form was filled out by improvisational exchanges between the musicians.

Carter revealed a penchant for inserting brief quotes in her discourse. In "Misterioso," these included some Gershwin, some Ellington, and "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." In the next number, "Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise," a nearly 90-year-old Sigmund Romberg tune restored to its tango pulse in this version, the violinist tucked in smidgens of "Flight of the Bumblebee" and the perky trumpet tune from "Petrouchka."

The duo gave Gershwin full measure in a bluesy, mid-tempo interpretation of Gershwin's "Oh Lady Be Good" to bring the concert up to intermission.  They were thoroughly inspired by this point, having just come out of the etude-like thickets of a Barron original called "What If." This was nicely positioned after an ethereal ballad, also by Barron, called "A Flower." Both were among the six pieces available on "Freefall." Another was a buoyant rendition of Johnny Hodges' "Squatty Roo."

The concert's second half opened with a deep-delving interpretation of the Billie Holiday song "Don't Explain." The performance featured a complex solo cadenza by Carter that tucked in a paraphrase of cross-strings figuration from Arvo Part's "Fratres."  I found the adventurousness of this arrangement more to the point than the wallowing, unfocused account Barron and Carter gave of Wayne Shorter's "Footprints." That jazz standard is also subject to puzzling overextension on "Freefall," where it's the only one of the 10 tracks that doesn't make sense to me.

The concert closed with another classic from that monstre sacre of jazz piano, the self-explanatory "Monk's Blues." The energizing mutual regard of the two musicians ensured a fresh interpretation of the bedrock form of so much American music. The Tarkington audience was sent out into the snowy cold with memories of a rare meeting of minds that was also a meeting of old souls.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Love handles: Wisdom Tooth Theatre Project explores what we talk about when we talk about body image

An overview of Wisdom Tooth Theatre Project's season
Neil LaBute specializes in comedy that makes us squirm about how easily we fall in with tribal thinking. In "Fat Pig," he is blunt from the title on about the way overweight people, particularly women, are pushed to the margins of social life among singles.

Wisdom Tooth Theatre Project, a resident company of IndyFringe Basile Theatre, opened a production of the 2004 play Thursday night that sailed confidently through the rough waters of 21st-century romance. The confidence displayed did not always deliver the insights buried in the rapid-fire dialogue, which was keyed to an intensity that seemed partly the fault of the script.

Callie Hartz directs the cast of four, who also handled the movement of set elements and props throughout the two-act play. Office, restaurant, and apartment settings were efficiently if minimally suggested; bathing suits and beach chairs did the trick for the finale, a pool party where the fate of the apparently mismatched lovers — plus-size Helen (Kait Burch) and regular-guy Tom (Josh Harrington) is driven home.

Hartz has her actors richly endowed with gestures and facial expressions that make each character vivid and a little overelaborated. I kept wondering if an expressions chart like the one below had been consulted. Besides Helen and Tom, there are Tom's office buddy Carter, a crude piece of work played by Ryan Ruckman, and Tom's spurned castoff Jeanie (Chelsea Gill), who works down the hall in accounting and is just as detail-oriented in settling her romantic accounts.

The production worked some of these hard.
The pace at which the story is told was jam-packed and unrelenting. It could have used a little more air at first, a "meet-cute" scene between Helen and Tom. LaBute's penchant for crafting characters with a gift for quick repartee, sometimes toxic or cliche though it is, has to be modulated in performance. The opening scene, which contrasted Tom's gingerly manner with Helen's self-confident frankness, needed a few "beats" as this unlikely couple gets used to each other over a quick lunch at which they happen to share a table.

LaBute is awfully fond of characters signaling "Just kidding" or "I'm serious," but I didn't sense such verbal emojis throwing the sort of low hurdles into the conversational path one might expect. Later, I also felt it hard to imagine Jeanie's violent eruption at Tom taking place in an office without attracting a crowd. Maybe we are supposed to see Tom's work station as entirely enclosed and soundproof.

This reflects something airtight in the play's construction, which implies but barely sketches a world outside these four people. The playwright focuses so fiercely on the social norms that make a liaison between a fat woman and a fit man scandalous that he finds it uninteresting to round them out (pun unavoidable). Same with the other two characters: Jeanie is fighting mad at being dumped for an overweight woman, and Carter is a busybody and a jerk upholding normal prejudices. In his case, those are grounded in the embarrassment he felt growing up as the son of a fat mother.

Some poignancy in his recollection doesn't stand a chance against the pit bulls of scorn Jeanie and Carter unleash (along with everyone else in the office, evidently) to make Tom question his choice of an unconventional girlfriend. LaBute has his agenda polished, bolted down and ready to take its course. Wisdom Tooth Theatre Project follows that course energetically.

The main recommendation I must make to those considering "Fat Pig" and pondering the issues it raises is to grab a seat along the Basile Theatre's west wall. Otherwise, you may be looking at actors' backs a lot of the time. Some of the silent responses  — the "takes" — that seemed absent to me may have been there but just not visible from a side seat. When you've got audience on three sides of the stage, you are obligated to play to three sides. That means moving actors around more than might seem natural, but finding ways to make it look natural. Otherwise, a side seat ought to be sold as "obstructed-view."

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Yo-Yo Ma wows a capacity crowd with Palladium recital

Yo-Yo Ma and Kathryn Stott displayed fine partnership.
To make for a provocative tweet (and who doesn't do that from time to time?), I previewed Yo-Yo Ma's Palladium recital Wednesday night by noting that he and pianist Kathryn Stott would be playing the Cesar Franck Sonata in A major, which cellists like to "steal" from violinists.

Of course, that facetious dig concealed the fact that the composer approved an arrangement for cello and piano. Thus, the tradition that Ma and Stott followed, thrilling a capacity audience, is both legitimate and well-established. Even better, the duo interpreted the piece in such a way that showcased advantages of this version.

Master of soft playing that he is, Ma held the audience spellbound whenever he moved into that end of the dynamic spectrum. He launched the cello's first-movement theme as an insinuation more than a declaration. Subsequently, with like-minded dynamics from the pianist, the performance walked back the heart-on-sleeve aspect of many violin-piano performances of the work.

This seemed not only a deliberate choice, but also a feature of hearing those wonderful melodies and splendid figuration from a lower string voice. The result restrained the emotional impact that it's natural for the violin to represent in Romantic music. To some listeners, perhaps, this was not the Franck sonata they were accustomed to. But it struck me as refreshing and insightful.

I liked the rush up to the end of the first movement, which stood in more contrast to what had preceded it than usual. Also, the recitative portion of the third movement came across as particularly thoughtful, and the hymn-like cello tune in the "Fantasia" was more balanced, both emotionally and in tonal weight. In the finale, where the cello overlaps the piano's phrases, Ma played daringly behind the pianist's tempo, but not enough to imperil coordination. Again, a sober, reflective quality came through; the excitement was measured and well-distributed.

The performance had a captivating quality of a whole different order from the work's premiere, when the audience urged the dedicatee, violinist Eugene Ysaye, and his pianist to complete their performance despite growing darkness in the concert hall, where illumination was not permitted. They are said to have finished in bravura fashion, having memorized the new piece. It was that kind of enchantment that Ma and Stott provided in a hall with 21st-century lighting in full working order.

After prefixing their performance of a suite called "Arc of Life" with Fauré's "After a Dream" (in tribute to the Paris massacre victims), the duo played Shostakovich's Sonata in D minor. Ma showed his superlative bow control in so many ways, not just in the firmest and lightest touch you're ever likely to hear from a cellist. The staccato main theme of the finale was played near the frog (the end of the bow near the hand that holds it) with a barely detectable motion. It gave an extra suspensefulness to music that eventually shows off the cellist's agility and the duo's gift for projecting that characteristically ambiguous Shostakovich sense of humor.

Heart-stopping melodies, embraced by the two famous settings of "Ave Maria" (Bach/Gounod and Schubert), encompassed as well the sauciness of Jacob Gade's "Tango Jalousie" in the middle. Modern lyricism from a cellist-composer, Giovanni Sollima, set the stage for the Franck Sonata. It's a 2005 piece written for the film "Il bell'Antonio," and is full of delicate yet plaintive slides and portamento links, sometimes  in octaves, that only a cellist with exquisite control could manage. A final slow glissando, ascending upward in diminishment to sheer nothingness, signaled as well as anything the rare perfection the recital treated us to.

Ma left his cello backstage for the duo's first curtain call.  When he came back with the instrument for a second bow, the roar from the crowd was like something you might hear in a sports stadium. The encore, Edward Elgar's "Salut d'amour," was Ma's salute to his British pianist, who heads back home today upon last night's completion of their tour. Central Indiana clearly felt privileged to wave farewell.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Circus maximus: Michael Schelle gives a ringmaster class at Butler

Michael Schelle: At 65, still elfin with an edge.
Mark Twain once quipped that some German words are so long they have perspective. The perspective offered by "Schellekammermusikonzert" at Butler University Tuesday night was indeed lengthy, ranging over chamber music by Michael Schelle written between 1998 and last year.

Unsurprisingly, the perspective was also manic, for the most part. The "Schelle chamber music concert" traversed a post-modernist Moebius strip along which the ghost of George Antheil shook hands with the ghost of Spike Jones.

The spirits were willing, the flesh was wack in such pieces as the tenor-saxophone duet "Red Herring" and the climactic "Heartland," a mordant tour of the Midwest culminating in "Threnody for the Victims of Indiana."

Not many composers are given to Penderecki punning, but that title is just the start for Schelle. The movement opened with the composer conducting the instrumental septet, as he had through six previous movements, including the comically soporific "Badger Baby."An uncredited extra poked his head in through a stage door, looking like he'd just moseyed in from Oolitic or Gnaw Bone, before shuffling quizzically over to Schelle.

It turned out to be faculty tenor Thomas Studebaker, who made a credible bumpkin being persuaded by Schelle to help him sing a paean to Indiana as the ensemble vamped in the background. A couple of students came forward to inveigle the audience into joining Studebaker and Schelle, displaying outsize cards containing the lyrics, while the band played on. And the audience joined in lustily, being by that point silly putty in Schelle's hands. Such shenanigans as "Red Herring," featuring Matt Pivec and Jay Young in a raucous tenor-saxophone duo, had made sure of that.

Schelle may revel in visual humor, though I'm not sure how much of the performers' costuming is stipulated in the score.  In any case he also links his humor to musical matters, with a diagnostic twist. So, you want a picture of the vanity and aggressive honking of tenor players? Pivec and Young provided it big time. And it's likely Schelle had his eye and ear on the classic tenor duels of the 1940s and 1950s and the macho posturing they entailed.

 "My Precious Iron Cello" stands for the mellow euphonium that Michael Colburn played, with Catherine Bringerud at the piano; the three-minute piece has its share of mellowness, all right, but also capricious leaps among the instrument's registers, ending with a shout from the pianist.

Schelle has more than madcap tricks to trot out.  His sense of humor is often witty, not just funny. Four movements from "Straight, No Lithium," his suite for solo piano, included three evocative reworkings of J.S.Bach under the rubric "Bacchanalia: Three Bach Transformations."  From "Barrelhouse" to "No Lithium," they were played with precision and fervor by pianist Jim Loughery. The piece shares initials with a long-running TV show that, by many accounts recently, is nowhere near as funny.

Earlier, Richard Ratliff gave a convincing account of Schelle's Third Piano Sonata ("Janus"), named for the Roman god of facing both ways who lent his name to January.  I admired the deliberate restraint of the middle movement, "Frozen" (which owes nothing to the hit film), and its irresolute still-life feeling. The finale put into virtuoso piano language the search for meaningful direction with which everybody approaches the future, save for those who have every last detail planned. Such folks are doubtless not among those best served by Schelle's music; for the rest of us, it's a giddy trip.

Sobriety and open emotion are factors in "Mystic Mourning," which clocked in at nearly 15 minutes (about the length of "Heartland"). For violin, bass clarinet, double bass, percussion and piano, the piece used uncredited vocalists (mostly speaking from the audience) and one onstage singer. Maybe she was intended to be sensed rather than heard clearly, but I think she ought to have been miked. This piece had a long, patiently laid-out foreground before the main work of musical bereavement showed up, with percussionist Jon Crabiel cueing short spoken eulogies from the audience.

It was another side of Schelle, another perspective, but not one past the vanishing point of those long German words that Mark Twain mocked.

Monday, November 16, 2015

'Anything helps': Of panhandlers and program notes, Beethoven, bombast and the banishment of anxiety

Bombastic? Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" setting (last movement, Symphony No. 9 in D minor) is bombastic?!

Elias Quartet: Program notes for its concert here contained a shocker.
The word leaped from the page of Nicholas Johnson's program notes for the Elias Quartet concert of Ensemble Music Society. Before the string quartet entered the Indiana History Center stage Nov. 11, I read the Butler University musicologist's notes with great interest, as I usually do, since I admire their clarity and evident knowledge of the subject.

The tone is usually calm; there's obviously a person behind them, but normally they don't tear down, even obliquely. And this seemed an oblique swipe (if that's what it was): The "Ode to Joy" reference occurs in an introduction to a note on the String Quartet in F major, op. 18, no. 1.

It's useful to separate opinion from description when we read about music, but it isn't always easy to do. That the word "bombast" conveys a negative opinion about whatever it's applied to can't be denied. The concise definition in my Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary nails it: "pretentious inflated speech or writing." By extension, music can be bombastic as well.

"Bombast" comes from a Middle English word for cotton padding. I hope it's unnecessary to point out that despite the word's sound, it has nothing to do with bombs or the noise they make. I'm confident that Nicholas Johnson is not among those who share this common misunderstanding of the word. While there are loud moments in the last movement of Beethoven 9, that's quite beside the point if "bombastic" fairly describes the composition.

So I'll try to explain what descriptive value the word "bombastic" might have as applied to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, specifically the finale. Attempting to think almost tactilely, I search with difficulty for the feel of cotton padding in the "Ode to Joy" — musical stuffing, suggesting that what Beethoven has to communicate is padded, in the manner of a long-winded speech or a child's doll.

This moves us quickly into the trailblazing glory of the Ninth in the history of the symphonic form: its words. The layout implies that the form, barely 70 years old when Beethoven composed his valediction to the genre, has been superseded. The Schreckensfanfare  — a twofold dissonant interruption — signals impatience to go beyond the abstract drama of the conventional structures of its four movements to express something extraordinary, using words.

Those words are an expression of the hope for an eventual feeling of human community focused on the word "Freude" (joy), as if this achievement would put the human race on a lofty new plateau, a utopia in which human solidarity would go along with renewed faith in God. In his biography "Beethoven," Maynard Solomon prefaces his discussion of the Ninth with a couple of apt quotes: Lamartine's "utopias are often only premature truths," and Hugo's definition of utopia as "the truth of tomorrow." Is an attempt to enunciate such truth necessarily inflated and pretentious, to use the dictionary's key words about bombast?

Modern composers have had fun with the insistent rhetoric of middle to late Beethoven by driving it to extremes, padding it. Mauricio Kagel did so in his 1970 film "Ludwig van," which includes a grotesque performance of the "Waldstein" Sonata's first movement by a withered crone who overemphasizes its rhythms, with an out-of-tune wind band joining the piano on the second theme. Her unruly white hair grows (through quick cuts) as the movement proceeds, then turns around over her hands and into the piano itself. It's the hairy equivalent of cotton padding.

Bombast, the elephant in the room
More recently, John Adams, in his "Absolute Jest" (2012) for string quartet and orchestra, subjects the Scherzo of the Ninth Symphony to obsessive patterning (and padding) in a one-movement work that also alludes to other  Beethoven music. "Scherzo," of course, means "jest," and one can only conclude from Adams' winking title that he means to convert the Ninth's second movement to total bombast. The original has even been described as "a satiric dance," and satire stands at the opposite pole from bombast. Padded satire falls flat. So Adams' title also suggests that making any joke absolute ensures that bombast will result. Successful jokes let the air of the outside world in; an absolute jest has to be hermetically sealed.

Beetnoven's bombast? The Ninth Symphony may illustrate it, but not because of noise or length.
With today's bursts of violence, the "truth of tomorrow" that Beethoven's Ninth holds out to those who hear it recedes ever further, it seems. But that makes it forever apt for such occasions as its happening to be on the Vienna Philharmonic schedule the night after the Paris terrorist attacks, so that Sir Simon Rattle could dedicate the performance to the memory of the victims.

Despite the scenes of joy that Beethoven employed in his setting, the utopia embodied in the finale of the Ninth is vague. What these dancing, marching millions are doing to celebrate "Joy the Daughter of Elysium" is reassuringly inexact. This, then, is just the kind of cotton padding we seem to need when we think of the best possible destiny of our troubled race. Its opposite, where we live, is the abiding truth of anxiety — including the anxiety that Beethoven himself endured in the long gestation of the "Ode to Joy" setting. For more than 20 years, he pondered how to use Schiller's poem. For nearly that long, he tinkered with the melody. He came up with a pristine utopia only when he celebrated joy in the vague, idealistic terms that Schiller had left him. Only with that could he put both creative and ethical anxiety behind him.

Here's the contrast: "Black utopia," wrote the Romanian philosopher E. M. Cioran, "anxiety alone affords us exact details about the future." I'm beginning to see the way "bombastic" describes the finale of the Ninth Symphony. Neither noise nor excessive length is the key. What is wanted if the bombast can apply to both masterpieces and kitsch is vagueness. The music of the Ninth doesn't qualify as bombast, but the ethical content does. To think the best about anything, especially the future, we need to keep our vision vague and lofty. Our vision is pretentious because we pretend to see eventual answers to our anxiety. Those answers are inflated by our wishful thinking.

Bombast is usually associated with excessive length, but it doesn't have to be. Some expressions inflate as rapidly as a  bicycle tire; pretentiousness can flower in an instant. While I can't imagine there could ever be a bombastic haiku — the 17 syllables and requirement of a single natural image work against it — there are plenty of bombastic sonnets, for example.

Recently I saw on the median of a local street a panhandler holding the conventional cardboard sign of his trade..The message?  "ANYTHING HELPS."  Perfect bombast, in two words! Avoiding the usual specific requests and concise tales of woe (appealingly satirized by the beggar illustrated here), the fellow I spotted found two words
Aggressive frankness lies at the opposite pole from bombast.
that allowed his openness to a good outcome to say everything. He was pretending that charity floats around the world, waiting for a place to settle. And maybe it would drift down to honor with a contribution his inflated message of all-embracing acceptance.

Maybe bombast — whether in the grandest terms conceivable or in a scrawled appeal on wrinkled cardboard — says what we so often want to hear. Keep your dreams vague and hopeful, and banish your anxiety about the future by padding it with just a few details: a shout in the street, a raucous procession, trust in a benevolent Heavenly Father.

Last season, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra sent everyone off to summer with the bombast of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. The piece splendidly suits such a conclusive position. So does Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony, which will bring the 2015-16 ISO season to a close next June.

The composer's original program for the finale states: "If you truly find no joy within yourself, look for it in others." More perfect bombast, like the panhandler's "ANYTHING HELPS."  The Tchaikovsky Fourth will do the work of bombast at its highest artistic level. It will pretend to find joy as sure as anything in "Ode to Joy," and it will inflate itself unmistakably, sealing that effect with a finale that, in Michael Steinberg's words, "beats all records for the number of cymbal crashes per minute."

I don't know if I have entirely come to terms with Johnson's sticking the  "bombastic" label on Beethoven's crowning symphonic statement. I have tried to leach out the word's negative connotations in suggesting that cotton padding may be something we need to soften the harshness of detail the human condition confronts us with. In today's world, after all, anything helps.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Taking Brahms' Second Piano Concerto in stride: Dejan Lazic and the ISO drop the other shoe

Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra patrons rarely get a chance to hear the same soloist in closely related repertoire two weeks in the row.

The last two weekends of programs at Hilbert Circle Theatre have been an exception, in which music
Dejan Lazic: More masterful than masterly.
director Krzysztof Urbanski and guest soloist Dejan Lazic could confirm their affinity in the two piano concertos of Johannes Brahms — a rapport already honed by a precedent collaboration they undertook with Urbanski's other orchestra, in Trondheim, Norway.

Evidence that conductor and soloist share similar thoughts on this music and can meld them smoothly in performance was clear last week. My mixed response last week to Lazic's interpretation of the D minor concerto (No. 1) continued Friday night as he and the orchestra played Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major.

This much different work  — mellower yet still substantial — has had more than a few concert pianists declaring that it is a harder test for the soloist than the Rachmaninoff Third, which had its formidable reputation boosted in the public mind by the overwrought 1996 movie "Shine." The Brahms Second requires extraordinary stamina, both mental and physical, over four movements and 50 minutes.

Lazic had resources to burn in the work. He never seemed fatigued, slapdash or offhand at any point. Nonetheless, he poured into his interpretation some outsize dynamic contrasts that, at the loud end, sometimes misrepresented the music. It's certainly possible to traverse a loud plateau without littering the landscape with accents, as Lazic did.

There are detached sixteenth-note figures in the first-movement development, for example, with the indication "ben marcato" (well marked, strongly accented), but they are rarer in the score than they were in Lazic's performance. The shopworn description of this concerto as "a symphony with piano obbligato" would have been strangled in its cradle if soloists had always exhibited the kind of command he did on Friday. But his approach did not reflect the music's character at many points.

An exception was the blissful third movement, where Lazic's meeting of the minds with Urbanski was confirmed by the lovely account of the prominent cello solo by Austin Huntington, in his first showcase as the section's new principal. Subdued moods are not beyond Lazic, certainly, but it was abundantly clear elsewhere in this piece that he prefers stoking fires to banking them. I believe my first exposure to his concerto playing was in Liszt's "Totentanz," upon which he put his stamp appropriately in February 2014. He is essentially a "Totentanz" sort of pianist, more in his element there than in Brahms.

"Winged Victory" at the Louvre.
Before intermission, concertgoers got plenty of exposure to the sight of the second violins being seated where the firsts usually are.  Zach De Pue came out to cue the tuning, then took his place where principal second violin Konstantin Umansky usually sits, with the firsts arrayed behind the concertmaster.

The switch seemed obviously governed by the conductor's concept of the program's other work, Schubert's Symphony No. 8 in B minor ("Unfinished"). With so many dark string sonorities in this two-movement piece, I'm guessing he wanted a thoroughgoing effect of the work's being built from the bottom up.

The performance reflected the piece's deep-grained solidity, its Olympian serenity amid the stresses of living. Its lighter moments were always set in a brooding context, a de profundis cry — controlled and complete over what would conventionally be just half a symphony.

I thought of other ostensibly incomplete art works that oddly strike us as sufficient the way they've come down to us. One is the Nike of Samothrace, often called "Winged Victory," a long-headless Hellenistic sculpture from the second century B.C. Like Schubert's "Unfinished," what we have is beautifully detailed, the feeling of a robed figure rushing into wind almost palpable, even in two dimensions. In its three-dimensional reality, it is as breathtaking as the B minor symphony, the way I saw it a half-century ago in its home at the Louvre. It's a symbol of the enduring triumph of the civilization it represents, despite yesterday's threats to the city the world-famous museum calls home.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

For the Ensemble Music Society, the Elias String Quartet flanks two delightful Scottish folk medleys with two Beethoven monuments

The Elias Quartet opened doors to Beethoven and traditional Scottish music.
Wrapping up what has been an inevitable project for many well-established string quartets, the Elias Quartet this year finished recording its complete Beethoven 16, according to its website.

The United Kingdom-based ensemble presented two of them Wednesday night at the Indiana History Center under the auspices of the Ensemble Music Society.

The pairing of Op. 18, no. 1 in F major with Op. 132 in A minor is an inspired choice. The ambitious nature of what its number inaccurately suggests was Beethoven's first quartet  looks forward in a way the composer couldn't have foreseen. The most autobiographical of the late quartets, the A minor, embraces simplicity and complexity in a manner governed by Beethoven's host of maladies, among which his eventually total deafness isolated him most.

It was evident from the way the quartet — sisters Sara and Marie Bitlloch (first violin and cello, respectively), second violinist Donald Grant, and violist Martin Saving — played the F major's slow movement that it had the control and sensitivity to render inward-looking music compelling. This would stand it in good stead in the centerpiece of op. 132, the Molto adagio-Andante movement, with its twofold journey from sickness to convalescence, all of it headed by the formidable title,"Holy Song of Thanksgiving to the Divinity by a Convalescent in the Lydian Mode."

As dramatic as that scenario is, the music is laid out over such a generous span that the composer's health crisis is seen from within as a struggle largely eschewing musical drama, despite an operatic recitative showcase for the first violin. We have instead one of those profound states of being Beethoven represented as he approached the end of life by masterly elaboration of small ideas. Exploring drama in musical terms was mostly what he developed to new heights in his earlier quartets. Even these feature expansive plateaus of reflection, as in the Andante of the third "Rasumovskiy" quartet (in C, op. 59, no. 3), with its hypnotic pizzicato cello patterns.

The trick in holding the listener's interest in the middle movement of op. 132 is rendering serious illness and recovery — in which our emotions are heightened but made static by uncertain progress — with enough vigor to make for a satisfactory performance. It's a little akin to what a good Violetta has to manage in the last act of "La Traviata." If not focused on drama per se, the A minor is a personal character study, full of textural contrast and energy that keeps drawing you in. The Elias displayed the capacity to reveal this consistently.

 First violinist Sara Bitlloch noted in remarks from the stage her continuing amazement that Beethoven could write such works when completely deaf. To me, even more stunning is the possibility, for which evidence is mixed, that after 1815 the nonhearing composer's world was not silent, but one in which progressive deafness produced the whistling and buzzing he complained of as early as 1801, a phenomenon we would today call tinnitus. Imagine exercising your grasp of musical pitch and how one combines with another against persistent interference from within your head, and somehow creating imperishable music despite the noise!

Speaking of sound, I worried that the Elias was a little too good at understatement in the F major quartet; its sound was often in danger of receding, despite the high quality of what could be heard. This turned out to have an explanation: Ensemble Music president John Failey also noticed the problem, and arranged for the hall's acoustic curtains to be adjusted to project the quartet's playing better in the second half.

Nonetheless, perhaps through the attractive presentation by the quartet's Scottish member, Donald Grant, a couple of sets of Scottish folk tunes he arranged (including two or three originals) were vivid and charming before the intermission. His singing of a nonsense Gaelic song to begin a reel in the second set was as nimble as his fiddling. The settings usually thrust his violin forward, but the accompaniments were themselves enlivening and never perfunctory.

The final tune, a lament for soldiers killed in an ancient battle, seemed oddly appropriate for a concert on Veterans Day — originally Armistice Day, celebrating the end of the First World War, in which the German foe dubbed Scotland's ferocious kilted regiments "ladies from hell."

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The greatest Greek philosopher turns out to have anticipated Marco Rubio's concern about tension between welding and philosophy

"We need more welders and less philosophers."

     -- Marco Rubio in Republican candidates' debate, Nov. 10, 2015
Sen. Rubio didn't realize welding and philosophy are not in contention

Why ask for more or less (or fewer) of either specialty when you can have both? Consider the following lost Platonic dialogue:

Socrates: Why, good morning, Welton. Where have you come from? I haven't seen you around Athens recently.

Welton the Welder: I've been in Ephesus, checking on some of my recent work there.

Socrates: And what did you find?  Do your welds in Ephesus hold?

Socrates attempted to resolve the matter.
Welton the Welder: Couldn't be firmer. Each one is still as certain as a sophist's fee.

Socrates: That's a sure thing, all right. So, good for you. But, Welton, have you still found time to search after wisdom?

Welton the Welder: Indeed I have, Socrates. But the more I work at welding, the more I seem preoccupied by the search after true knowledge. And the questions become all the greater. So I'm glad the gods have brought you into my path this morning.

Socrates: I'm happy for that, too. What in particular is troubling you?  Maybe I can help.

Welton the Welder: I'm wondering about the essence of the metals that are subject to forge welding, the only technique known to us in the ancient world. Here's the question: Does the application of heat create a new entity out of two forged metals? Or is their individual essence retained?

Socrates: That depends on how you consider the nature of heat.

Welton the Welder: Indeed. So, does the application of heat introduce a third essence through the welding process?

Socrates: That could only be true if heat, like the metals, were itself a substance. Do you think it is?

Welton the Welder: No, indeed, Socrates. Heat is a quality of heated bodies, but is not a part of their essence.

Socrates: You are right. But does the fusion of the two metals through forge welding create a third substance, with a separate essence?

Welton the Welder: I don't see how it could, though it's true you have a new thing in whatever you welded that you didn't have before.

Socrates: True enough, Welton. But the essence of the metals remains. Now, with the eventual introduction of arc welding, especially the use of a non-consumable tungsten electrode producing the weld, for example, you have to consider the degree to which a new substance comes into play, not just the application of heat from the forge. And that's a long way off.

Welton the Welder: To be sure, Socrates. But I must ask you about soldering. That definitely introduces a third substance, but at a lower heat than welding.

Socrates: In the case of soldering, then, there is no question that the essence of three substances is involved, and heat most assuredly does not disturb their integrity.

Welton the Welder: That's what I think, too, Socrates. But don't the ever-advancing techniques you alluded to open up the likelihood that the accomplished weld may be something quite different from the metals one is welding? Isn't technique itself something with an essence as substantial as the materials to which it is applied?

Socrates: You are thinking quite well on this subject, Welton, which is wearying me somewhat. I hold that heat, no matter how generated, does not change real essences, any more than cold does. The qualities of a substance may change, but the substance itself is permanent and inviolable. (He looks far off, sees someone he recognizes approaching, and frowns.) Besides, here comes Hume, who will cast doubt on the causal link between the metals unwelded, the heat applied to them, and the metals welded, so let's go off in opposite directions, shall we? Berkeley is having a dinner party tonight; perhaps he will have something to say on this matter. See you there, I hope.

In its Wood Room home, the Ronen Chamber Ensemble seasons its music-making with a seasonal theme

Since Gregory Martin was taken into the Ronen Chamber Ensemble's artistic direction by founders David Bellman and Ingrid Fischer-Bellman, thematic programming has been the norm.

British composer Robert Saxton (1953-    )
The tradition continued Tuesday night with "Time and the Seasons," the Ronen's musically dappled inauguration of the 2015-16 season.  Hilbert Circle Theatre's Wood Room was nearly filled to capacity for a program of British and American music around the theme. (The Ronen season as a whole celebrates the centenary of Albert Einstein's "General Theory of Relativity" — certainly the ne plus ultra of possible thematic links to mere music.)

The concert's centerpiece, distributed evenly in four parts over its course, was a composition called "Time and the Seasons" by Robert Saxton, an Oxford professor and musician whom Martin considers a mentor. The song cycle came across particularly well as interpreted by Norwegian bass-baritone Njål Sparbo, with Martin at the piano.

His pitch control was immaculate, notably in the unvarying pitch of the first song, "Winter, still, winter," and in the unaccompanied song "Autumn." His English diction was clearer and more expressive in singing than in speaking, probably an analogue to the truism that singers with a speech stutter jettison that handicap when they sing.

Speaking came up time and again, because, until the last of Martin's oral program notes, Sparbo was assigned to deliver them. With notes as ornate and loaded with cultural references as Martin's tend to be,  probably only native speakers who've practiced their parts should shoulder the responsibility of getting this sort of guidance across to audiences. (And the printed program notes should always carry composers' dates.)

"Summer Psalm" was also refreshing, with its running piano figures reflecting that season's bursting energy; it followed effectively upon the piano solo, "Summer Seascape." The finale, "The Beach in Winter: Scratby (for Tess)," didn't strike me as gray as Martin indicated it would be. In its angularity and mounting boldness, its colors spread across a considerable part of the spectrum, even if more vivid hues were appropriately ignored. Anyone who's spent time on beaches in winter, unless they are in the tropics and subtropics, knows the feeling.

Jennifer Christen was featured in three works.
But back to summer: The concert's standout piece was Samuel Barber's variegated, beautifully laid-out "Summer Music." This piece was eloquently performed by clarinetist Bellman with three Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra colleagues plus flutist Alistair Howlett. The ISO members involved were Jennifer Christen, oboe; Mike Muszynski, bassoon, and Robert Danforth, horn.

As well-integrated as it is, "Summer Music" takes in quite a range, its pastoral mood occasionally deepened by perky, staccato passages evoking the constant movement of insects, birds, and perhaps other wildlife best left to the imagination. I'm guessing that one more rehearsal might have brought Tuesday's performance to the brink of perfection, but the one on offer represented the work well.

Christen also gave a good account of herself in a movement from Kenneth Leighton's "Veris Gratia," which had some fetching oboe-cello dialogue (Kurt Fowler was the cellist), anchored to Martin's piano. I could make nothing much of Sparbo's program notes, but I liked the piece. The oboist also was in the spotlight, with Martin, in Edmund Rubbra's Sonata for Oboe and Piano, a buoyant, flowing work of restrained feeling, some of it embodying the stiff-upper-lip stereotype of the English character. Her warm, steady, full-bodied tone was a delight to hear, supported self-effacingly by Ronen's piano-man-of-all-work, Gregory Martin.

Bellman's clarinet showcase was less satisfying: three movements from Martin's "On a Winter Night." I'm not sure when "Ballade (By the Fireside)" became "Among the Snow-Laden Groves," maybe when the scene-setting chordal writing of "Ballade" went away. But some interesting harmonies underneath the lyrical flow engaged the interest where the conventional melodic writing and phrasing did not. Overall, this was one of the most conservative, hemmed-in new pieces I've heard recently.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

A twee grows in Brooklyn: Dan Kaufman plays warming-climate jazz from a city expecting a new shoreline

Scenes of the city: Dan Kaufman visits familiar places.
On "Familiar Places" (Red Piano Records), Dan Kaufman's gently impelled small-group jazz moves toward some assertiveness and sass at the end of the set on "farmington," a churning bluesy piece set to a kind of New Orleans shuffle beat.

You hang on to any indication that this bandleader has anything that needs to be said, and the certainty of that wavers in the course of these eight original tunes.

Keyboardist Kaufman  heads a group that's essentially a quintet (piano-bass-drums-guitar-saxophone) with percussionist Keita Ogawa adding color now and then. The musicians work well together; individually, they sometimes even sound three-dimensional.

You have to be patient with the first two tunes, which have the anodyne quality of what you can pick up in the background at Starbucks while you're scrawling Merry Christmas on your red cup. You'll perk up as Kaufman puts out some rollicking, down-home piano on "crosscheck," and exotic coloring enlivens the proceedings on the piece that follows — "dansesong" (but why spell "dance" the French way, and why are all the titles lowercase?)

As for Sam Sadigursky's tenor, it tends to emerge with the funk-free Nordic reserve of Jan Garbarek, especially on "dew eye" (which is typical of the Windham-Hill-style titles Kaufman favors).

I loved Matt Clohesy's bass solo on "falling petals." I also took favorable note of Johnathan Blake's flavorful drumming throughout the title piece,  and there are scattered displays of personality and atmosphere from guitarist Gilad Hekselman.

But too much of this competently produced and engineered CD fell upon my ears as, if I may borrow the title of the first track, mere "windshadow."

Monday, November 9, 2015

Butler University theater season launches with "Our Town"

"The morning star always gets wonderful bright the minute before it has to go, doesn't it?"

-- Stage Manager, opening speech, Our Town

Life's fleeting quality, so much part of our consciousness that we become suspicious of it when it recurs in works of art, has never been had a more beloved exposition on the American stage than Thornton Wilder's "Our Town," which opens Butler University Theatre's season this week.

Sean Caron as Simon Stimson addresses townsfolk in a scene from Butler's "Our Town."
Its minimalist style, nostalgic small-town setting, and its folksiness have commended it to high-school and community-theater treatment, as well as professional productions, throughout its history. We all grew up knowing Grover's Corners and the amiable guidance we got around town from the Stage Manager.

Wilder based his concept on one of the verse self-portraits in Edgar Lee Masters' "Spoon River Anthology," in which the figures speak of their lives from the grave. "Lucinda Matlock," dead at 96, concludes her epitaph: "What is this I hear of sorrow and weariness / Anger, discontent and drooping hopes? / Degenerate sons and daughters, / Life is too strong for you — / It takes life to love Life."

In some sense, despite its reputation as theatrical common coin, perhaps even common corn, "Our Town" is the perfect play. Its spareness of presentation puts the emphasis on a view of time's passage that only the theater can replicate. The eloquence of its few props has permanent resonance. Much of theater since then has benefited from Wilder's sure instinct for blending simple word and simple image, up to the empty jar the heroine holds up to the light in James Still's play for Indiana Repertory Theatre, "April 4, 1968"

What "Our Town" accomplishes in having connected with so many people on different levels over more than seven decades has its parallel in what an indelible tune accomplishes, though it may also earn its share of scorn. A professional songwriter whose name I can't recall hit on this when he said something to the effect that many musicians, especially those writing for the movies or the stage,  make fun of borderline hokey music like the Theme from "Chariots of Fire," but "you know we'd all give our eyeteeth to have written it."

You, dear reader, may be catching my drift, as you are bringing to mind scenes and lines from "Our Town," Perhaps you're calling up those white wooden chairs in the cemetery of the last act. And surely at least half of you now have the Theme from "Chariots of Fire" stuck in your head for a while.

Butler's production is directed by William Fisher. Performances are in the Schrott Center for the Arts. Here's the line-up of guest actors from Butler staff and faculty (followed by date and time of performance), who play Professor Willard:

*Provost Kate Morris (Wednesday at 7 PM)

*Vice President for Student Affairs Levester Johnson, with an after-party featuring live mascot Trip (Thursday at 7 PM).

*Performing and Fine Arts Librarian Sheri Stormes (Friday at 7:30 PM).

*Jordan College of the Arts Dean Ronald Caltabiano (Saturday  at 7:30 PM)

*Jon Van Ness '71, whose final Butler Theatre production as an undergraduate was "Our Town" (Sunday at 2 PM).

The full season can be found here.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

The ISO's guest soloist for the next two weeks displays a strong personality to impress upon Brahms (and the proper shelf life of reviews)

Joined at the hip, or the head, in the two piano concertos of Johannes Brahms, Krzysztof Urbanski and Dejan Lazic began their two-week collaboration Friday night.

It would take a Dr. Ben Carson to disconnect the two artists in this effort, so well-knit was their partnership in Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor in Hilbert Circle Theatre.

Dejan Lazic: The hypnotist's gaze is no accident.
The conductor had the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra covering the full range of the young Brahms' mix of thorny and tender inspirations in this imposing work. The guest soloist projected a similar breadth of understanding — a little too highly colored here and there, but overall suitably emphatic and sensitive.

The orchestra launched the first movement with  unrestrained vigor, enunciating those seismic trills and D-centered rumbling with daunting conviction. The delayed piano entrance was invitingly set out. There was an unshakable unanimity of concept. The heavenly hush of the Adagio further confirmed how well-matched these musical partners were, especially near the end.

That's where Lazic was at his best among the concerto's reflective moments. The pianist's affinity for the stormier aspects of this young man's concerto exhibited consistent force. Where he was called upon to be properly incisive, he became demonstrative about it, his hands and arms springing off the keyboard when the notes were short and loud as if he'd just touched a hot stove. Though distracting, such gestures at least belonged to the communicative power he commanded.

But he seemed unwilling to enter fully into the work's naive episodes, especially in the "Poco piu moderato" unaccompanied portion of the first movement. That's where he interpreted the "espressivo" indication as a license for affectation. Cues for straightforward lyricism are everywhere in this variegated work, and Lazic took advantage of most of them, fortunately.

My reservations about Lazic's performance have to be set gingerly against the background of his quarrel with a much better positioned professional colleague, Anne Midgette of the Washington Post. Last year, the pianist made public his disgust at the online prominence of a mixed review the critic gave of a Lazic recital in 2010. He wanted it removed so Google searches of his name would not keep throwing Midgette's reservations about his playing in the public's face. He evoked the European Union's declaration of "a right to be forgotten" for people from all walks of life offended by the perpetual prominence of negative information online.

You can read Lazic's defense of this campaign on his website here.

It's an appalling document, at first taking issue with the corporate structure and priorities of the Internet, then quickly moving on to Midgette. At the risk of sounding tribal, I got versions of such complaining for many years as a newspaper music critic, but never so stoutly and extravagantly maintained. Still smarting from a five-year-old critique, Lazic denounces "the defamatory, offensive and mean-spirited nature of this review" and links it to her reviews of other musicians, which are "simply over the top in sheer negativity and toxicity."

Read and judge for yourself, but I must note Lazic's peroration, heavy in sputtering rhetorical questions. The most amazing of them asks if young people will even want to take up musical study if they suspect they will be savaged by a critic someday. I will answer this question: Yes, they will undertake such study, and they will continue if they love music. I never asked my now professional musician sons: Are you sure you want to do this? You may get a hostile review. Can you handle such a catastrophe?

The discouragement of musicians and their supporters by reviews that offend them is about as likely as the Egyptian pyramids having been built to store grain. Finally, here is my 2014 dystopian fantasy of what might happen if Lazic's wish to suppress unfavorable commentary were fulfilled.

Returning to more pleasant matters: Urbanski and the ISO opened Friday's concert with a brilliant account of Beethoven's Symphony No. 1 in C major. The fully staffed string sections permitted  a kind of grandeur that is often primly avoided today in music written before the 19th century. This work emerged at the turn of that century, and its forward-looking nature is well-served by not overdoing its classical-period roots. The expressive breadth Urbanski elicited from his musicians was apt and refreshing.

The ISO's strings were well-balanced in all respects, the wind-instrument inflections deftly placed in prominence as needed. Tempos were brisk, but carefully so. Phrases were consistently well-turned, and the sudden accents that became a characteristic part of Beethoven's signature sprouted from the orchestral texture without disturbing the music's flow.

Monday, November 2, 2015

In first of three appearances here this season, Garrick Ohlsson in recital confirms his stature as a Chopin interpreter

Garrick Ohlsson played Beethoven, Schubert, and Chopin here Sunday.
My first memory of Garrick Ohlsson is of a very tall young man entering the stage of Rackham Auditorium at the University of Michigan, resplendent in a white suit, complete with vest.

It was summertime in the early 1970s, and the attire seemed seasonally appropriate and also reflective of his radiance as a recitalist. Then and now, the superficially incongruous image of Mark Twain came to mind; the celebrated author favored white suits in the last decade or so of his life, and was often photographed in one.

Sunday afternoon's American Pianists Association recital by Ohlsson, who this time was more soberly clad, spurred a mental connection: The 67-year-old pianist, like Twain, is a master storyteller. The narrative thread in his interpretations, particularly of Chopin's Ballade No. 1 in G minor, was remarkably sturdy and inviting.

The Ballade performance suggested the literary analogues to Chopin's invention — tales designed to beguile the listener in spacious yet comprehensible forms, with touchstones of emotion and drama along the way. Ohlsson took much of the Ballade more slowly than it is often heard, and he made the most of its reflective nature throughout. It was a patient performance, in no hurry to deploy its undeniably impressive reserves too soon or too often. Some moments had a deliberate "dryness" in the pianist's pedaling choices that were refreshing. Ohlsson sometimes delayed tempo accelerations in order to set out the material that went with them more deliberately.

There was similar breadth in the two Chopin encores he offered in response to the tremendous ovation he received from the Indiana Landmarks Center audience. Two of the Polish composer's most familiar waltzes — the E-flat, op. 18, and the C-sharp minor, op. 64, no. 2 — were expansively played, with a generous range of expression that never imperiled their cohesion. There was an adventurous quality  to these performances, an air of exploration. I was reminded of something Ohlsson long ago told an interviewer: "Piano playing is a constant movement into the future with your mind and body. You're always going forward into the unknown, basically."

The Nocturne in C minor, op. 48, no. 1, preceded the Ballade, which followed without a break.  The staccato octaves and chords in the left hand were delightfully understated, moving naturally into a slower section in which Ohlsson was scrupulous about the "sotto voce" indication. The subsequent, octave-rich crescendo was overpowering.

The minor mode (and mood) was characteristic of the recital's second half. Ohlsson played two adjacent etudes from op. 25, No. 5 in E minor and No. 6 in G-sharp minor. The playful skipping figures in the former were vivid, and it struck me that the contrasting theme in the baritone range could have been an attractive popular song in the era when Tin Pan Alley composers occasionally raided the classics.

Add to these wonders the Scherzo No. 4 in E major that opened the second half and you had an enchanting display of Chopin masterpieces. The scherzo was notable for something Ohlsson displayed throughout the recital: fully balanced sonorities that carried wonderful insights into Chopin's perpetually surprising harmonies.

In the first half, Ohlsson's storytelling gift prevailed in an unexpected way in Schubert's "Wanderer" Fantasy. The four linked movements can sometimes be heard as leaning toward the mighty summation of the fugue, by which time the composer's imaginative play with the song that gives the piece its title may weary the listener. Ohlsson presented a gallery of distinct characterizations. There was both nobility and panache at the outset, then an enchanting Adagio section and a witty Scherzo. A finely calibrated display of "voices" in the climactic fugue, everything in majestic proportion, had that "wow" factor uppermost to the very end.

Opening with Beethoven's Sonata in A-flat, op. 110, Ohlsson disconcerted me slightly with the stateliness of the Scherzo, which feels as if it should be headlong. Still, his approach steadied the mind and ears for a majestic fugue that's turned upside down, after some suspenseful dolor, to end the piece. The first movement gave notice that a master was at work being scrupulous about the music's dynamic variety and formal solidity while still "going forward into the unknown."

The pianist's other appearances in town this season, besides this "Grand Encounters" solo recital, are a chamber music concert with Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra members on March 20, and concerto performances with the ISO June 3-5 in Indianapolis and Carmel. They are certain to be red-letter days for local music-lovers.