Thursday, December 31, 2015

'Ring out, wild bells!': The fatal lure of old marginalia as the door opens to a New Year full of blank pages and limitless margins

And if you have managed to graduate from college
without ever having written "Man vs. Nature"
in a margin, perhaps now
is the time to take a step forward.
    — "Marginalia," by Billy Collins

I don't think I'm entitled to take that step, though a cursory examination of three books I used in
Billy Collins: Chummy poet forced me to come to terms with my old marginal self.
college courses didn't happen to turn up "Man vs. Nature." I left off my search after browsing the collections of Keats, Tennyson, and Whitman I once pored over as an English major at Kalamazoo College a half-century ago.

I sensed  that "Man vs. Nature," if I ever wrote it on some page now inaccessible to me, would look almost brilliant compared to some of the marginalia I discovered, mostly in light pencil. In a half-hour today, I'd learned quite enough about my post-teen self, marginalia division, in addition to the fact that my penmanship was only marginally better than it is today. But, oh! the verbal flatulence I wafted over those borderlands! The impulsive snarkiness! The belaboring of the obvious!

Here's what I dashed off beside one of the most famous sections of Tennyson's "In Memoriam." It's apt especially as 2016 arrives because the passage is the poet's apostrophe to bells signaling the turn of the year, starting "Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky." Tennyson raises his head briefly from lamenting his friend's death to praise the dawn of hope each New Year awakens. The word "ring" is repeated to such clarion effect that the verse itself starts ringing, even when read silently.

In my callow youth, I didn't appreciate this, apparently. In the fifth quatrain, I bracketed this pair of lines: "Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes, / But ring the fuller minstrel in" and wrote sneeringly: "Yes, please do!"  I was in the 106th division of this monumental elegy, and I must have become tired of it. Today, I might urge the arrival of "a fuller minstrel" less sarcastically.

Collins' poem, a lighthearted personal survey of the centuries-old habit of scribbling notes in the page margins of books, ends with a punch line he sets up elaborately.  But at midpoint, the stanza quoted above addresses the reader directly, as is Collins' chummy habit.

Endymion, the sleeping shepherd; I was the apparently sleeping student.
My hackles often rise when he does this, but I felt challenged by this particular nudge. As I said, the game palled quickly, especially after I came across this gem near the end of Keats' "I Stood Tip-Toe."  It stood in faint pencil near  the lines "Cynthia, I cannot tell the greater blisses / That follow'd thine, and thy dear shepherd's kisses."

I was appalled to find that I had circled "shepherd's," drew a line out from it to the right-hand margin, and written "Who?"

This at the end of reading a poem that clearly identifies the shepherd as Endymion, youth beloved of the moon goddess, variously called Diana or Cynthia, after the Greek divinities Artemis and Selene. This, in a volume of Keats that also includes one of his most important early long poems, "Endymion." And finally, I need hardly emphasize, in a volume belonging to an English major.
The evidence: Shepherd? What shepherd?

"Who?" indeed!

I can forgive myself for writing, in my Whitman book, "C'mon, Walt, you're slipping!" somewhere next to the longueurs of  "Salut au Monde." A reader might justly write that in the margin at countless places in Whitman, because Walt does slip from time to time, occasionally in a line that also contains something great. But that Keats-defiling "Who?" really sticks in my craw.

Anyway, Collins ends "Marginalia" with an example he discovered long ago in a copy of "The Catcher in the Rye." He imagines it having been written by a beautiful girl he would never meet. It reads: "Pardon the egg salad stains, but I'm in love."

I'll go along with Collins' fantasy, extending it with the hope the beautiful reader wasn't in love with Holden Caulfield. Or anyone like him in real life.

That wouldn't have ended well. More than egg salad would have been spilled, I'm sure.

I prefer to think the girl was really hoping — as we all are — to "ring the fuller minstrel in." Young love, involving a little messiness with egg salad, was a place for her to pause along the way, scribbling an apology while looking ahead, as we all do.

In the meantime, I won't be taking a step forward for refraining from "Man vs. Nature."  I'll shelter in place instead, wishing the world a Happy New Year from the margins.


"The Little Match Girl": A New Year's choral narrative by Gordon Getty (with other works) is issued on CD

The cover of a new release of Gordon Getty compositions
Gordon Getty is among the prolific senior composers of a conservative bent who have a steady inclination to make major statements. I find his belief in the social utility of concert music touching, and fortunately its apparent rootedness in his temperament and characteristic musical language usually saves his output from seeming too mission-driven.

Some recently recorded examples are glowingly performed in "The Little Match Girl" (Pentatone), whose title comes from the most substantial work, a setting for chorus and orchestra of Hans Christian Andersen's pathetic tale of an impoverished urban match seller and her desperate visions on a cold New Year's Eve.

The Bavarian Radio Chorus and Orchestra perform under the direction of Asher Fisch and Ulf Schirmer. The sound is radiant — close, but with room to blossom. I will take note of vocal soloists in two works I won't review fully here: tenor Nikolai Schukoff in "Poor Peter" and soprano Melody Moore and baritone Lester Lynch in "Joan and the Bells." They treat the texts with care and have the right oratorio-style investment in making words and music seem inseparable.

"Poor Peter" uses the composer's texts to songs inspired by William Butler Yeats. They are colorfully quaint, vivid with with echoes of the Celtic Revival. Yeats is directly the source of a piece for chorus without soloists, "A Prayer for My Daughter." Though it's true all settings of poetry in some sense violate how the poet intended his work to engage with readers, Getty's "Prayer for My Daughter" seems much too focused on "colorizing" every phrase of Yeats. The poet's intensity of feeling, carefully controlled in the original, is here a cue for heightened expression. Performances of Getty's setting can potentially attract new admirers of Yeats' poem; one hopes they will go back to that poem as soon as possible and claim it for themselves — and for Yeats.

"Joan and the Bells" is a somewhat attractive uplifting of Joan of Arc's fatal encounter with her enemies foreign and domestic. I find Getty's persistence in polishing the saint's halo a little wearying on the whole, though competently crafted.

On the other hand, "The Little Match Girl" strikes me as wholly mesmerizing. With the excellent Munich forces conducted by Fisch, this musical version of the depressing Andersen tale fully enters the spirit of the sentimental miracle that lifts the urchin's dying soul to heaven. Getty is skillful at setting prose: The rhythms of sentences draw from him a special gift for apt phrasing.

Handling of the orchestra is wholly sensitive to the expressive burden carried by the chorus. Touches of "mickey-mousing" that might be annoying elsewhere seem inoffensive here: Brass and drums accompany the little match girl's assumption into heaven where she meets her grandmother, "for they were with God." Ethereal harp indicates that the girl's body, discovered frozen on New Year's Day, is a mere remnant of her essence, which is finally comfortable in heaven.

Obvious? Perhaps. But the spell cast by "The Little Match Girl" was too complete by the work's final minutes for me to find such moments corny. This piece exalts its material credibly. Everything fits. "The Little Match Girl" would be worth taking up by professional choruses and orchestras everywhere.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Two poems to celebrate the turning of the year, the permanence of change, the eternal strangeness of the familiar

Gentle People

The gentle people seem to float
Through life, dispensing gentle balm
On turmoil others stir by rote,
Their fingers tightening toward the palm.

How do the gentle people feel
As things ungentle strew their path,
Dilute the acid of the real,
Put up good wine from grapes of wrath?

The public face is rent-to-own,
The character is sealed at birth,
Gentleness marrow in the bone
Sir John Falstaff
Of legatees who'll claim the earth.

Where do the gentle go to tame
The bile that rises in life's throb?
When they're at home, and doff their fame,
Do they curse peace, "that lousy job"?

A rogue too dims his glaring light,
Recharges, takes a deeper breath,
As late, offstage, the roaring knight,
Calmed by Dame Quickly, saluted death

Across green fields. He'd time to mull it
Amid conclusive groans and winces,
Recalling when heart and tongue and gullet
Were all congruent with a prince's.

The Streetlights in Other Neighborhoods

      Let there be light. — Genesis I:3

I know my own corner just well enough under the streetlight
With its teasing, suggestive mystery
Outside the glowing motes of illumination
In fog or mist, and even when the air is clear,
To be able to give you a history
Of my time in the neighborhood, my station
In the midnight swish of time edging out fear.

By day when I see other neighborhoods, no matter how strange,
The familiar stature of houses where strangers live
Connects them to a sense that says, You know me:
This is where I house families like yours in some manner.
You could live here. What I take home, I also give
In these brief visits. But nothing quite so homey
Comes through emblazoned on a welcome banner

When I pass through at night, and every intersection
Seems to replicate a crossroads of accident and fate,
As streetlights, now put to their automatic work,
Shoulder aside a darkness full of uncanny dread
In which pinpoints of light suggest the leisure state
Of people whose souls hang heavy in the murk
Of sleep to come, rehearsing when they'll join the dead.

The streetlights in other neighborhoods are doubtless like mine,
But after dark I have to notice how self-contained they are,
Insisting their glowing circles diffuse into gloom unique
And dangerous. You don't live here, they say, and never will.
Each source of light, from 10-watt bulb to star,
Must radiate nostalgia for the moment before time's first creak
And light's diffusion from then to some exponential nil.

Light is one, and dreams it eventually will convene as such
In a fraternity of the universe's orbed reflectors and fires,
Of burning brilliances both continuous and interstitial,
When the streetlights of all neighborhoods will find nothing odd
In consorting with each other, with flashlights and suns, in optics-driven choirs
And, in one voice of blazing muteness, repeat the initial
Recorded utterance and command of God.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

'Behold the Radiant Token': a seasonable sermon beholden in part to Charles Dickens' 'Christmas Carol' (and inspired by IRT's stage adaptation)

“Behold the Radiant Token”: An Agnostic Perspective on Incarnation and Revelation
(lay sermon delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Indianapolis, Dec. 27, 2015)

I invite you to imagine me as an 8-year-old boy, thrilled to accept my father’s invitation to lead the entire Sunday School in the hymn “When Morning Gilds the Skies.” He was minister of music at Trinity Lutheran Church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and our family’s life was closely connected to church life there.

Trinity Luthernn Church as I remember it.
“When Morning Gilds the Skies” was my absolutely favorite hymn, and, after giving me some elementary conducting instruction – raising my right arm on the upbeat that begins each verse, then moving into the conventional pattern for conducting in common time – he set me loose. I was thrilled. It went well.

After all these years, I was surprised to note how little of the hymn I remembered – in fact nothing past the first three phrases: “When morning gilds the skies, My heart awaking cries, May Jesus Christ be praised.” The rest of the hymn, with frequent repetitions of “May Jesus Christ be praised,” dwells on the endless and universal necessity of praising the Savior. I’m tempted to believe all that meant something to me at the time, but today, I wonder.

I wonder in particular because my jumping-off point probing the mystery of Incarnation in this sermon, in language I hope connects with a wide variety of Unitarian Universalist belief, centers on what opened up to me in those first three lines more than six decades ago. Briefly defined, Incarnation is the Christian doctrine that Jesus’ birth represents God’s becoming flesh to live among the human race in human form. The Word became Flesh and dwelt among us, says the Gospel of John, though the Greek word translated as “dwelt” has the more vivid meaning of “pitched his tent.” God pitched his tent among us. As the second verse of the much-loved “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” puts it in less homely terms: “Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see / Hail the Incarnate Deity / Pleased as man with men to dwell / Jesus, Our Emmanuel” — “Emmanuel” being Hebrew for “with us is God.”
The crux of Incarnation: Mary learns she is to bear the Son of God.

Christmas sets forth the joy of that belief, and the Resurrection — the celebration of Easter – is supposed to confirm it. Almost all UUs have to walk back considerably from this doctrine to a point where we can take in Christmas on worshipful terms, often focusing on the miraculous quality we assign to all human births in the hope that each one reaffirms human potential gloriously.

I would like to take another tack here, seeing Incarnation as an uncertain, flickering, doubtful glimpse into the world beyond the one we sense every day around us, whose unprovable actuality may show itself in any life at any point. The metaphor here is of daybreak, the promise that lies ahead, even at the beginning of cloudy days. I’m inclined to see Incarnation as any moment that lends us a transcendent sense of new beginnings, or that allows us to receive insights that take us close to the mystery of creation and whatever entity may lie behind it.

As an agnostic, I have unshakable doubts about the reality of what we are seeing when we have such experiences. But since I’m not an atheist, specifically of the kind who refuses to see beyond the bland, material ordinariness that’s satirized in David Citino’s poem “The Man Who Couldn’t Believe.” I allow for the possibility of an unknowable entity we might as well call God, recognizing that he, she or it may not have chosen to tell us much in terms we can understand.

And I think, even as a faithful preteen Christian, what resonated with me in “When Morning Gilds the Skies” was the assertion of Incarnation in those joined images of the first two lines: Morning, personified as a sublime craftsman, takes the receding night sky and decorates the east with gold, something precious. And this goes together, not principally with the head and body waking up in response to this gilding, but with the heart — the organ conventionally thought of as the seat of our emotions. From that synchrony, praise issues forth for God incarnate.

The first two phrases are what I responded to most in that hymn, and all that I respond to in it today.  The UU counterpart to “When Morning Gilds the Skies” is perhaps “The Morning Hangs a Signal.” Its theology is significantly removed from the Incarnation as Christians see it, but it suits the breadth of liberal religion. The imagery is provisional, after all, never definitive. In his book “The American Religion,” the scholar Harold Bloom truly says: “To give meaning to meaninglessness is the endless quest of religion.”

But where do we get this meaning? If the revelations that sustain Jews and Christians through the Bible are doubted to be genuine knowledge about God, doubts often stem from incompatible divine and human natures. The widely proclaimed attributes of God that we find in the Bible and the cultural legacy it has left us don’t make sense if we are trying to describe a force, a generative power, who necessarily has eternal status, uncreated but always there. Such attributes are instead almost always human qualities writ large.

On the other hand, eternity and infinity are qualities that can’t be separated from God. Revelation about them may be somewhere in that tiny place among the flood of materials and sense impressions that engulfs us, as Annie Dillard suggests in the introduction to her essay on the Gospel According to Saint Luke. Every trait we exhibit takes place in our time-bound existence. A supernatural entity not so bound has to be more than a vast collection of human qualities.

Because of this gulf, agnostics say humans can't claim to know when Incarnation — the penetration of humanness by the divine — takes place. Incarnation’s purpose may be to stimulate faith, or at least inquiry, without providing knowledge. In its “agnosticism” entry, my dictionary of philosophy at home points out: “Faith may be possible where knowledge, strictly so called, is not, and hence there is a sense in which it is logically possible, even if psychologically difficult, to be both a philosophic agnostic and a religious believer.” I haven’t managed that yet.

Part of God’s purpose could be to remain unknowable. Divine revelation might just be a comfortable illusion nurtured by human emotional needs. This is consistent with God’s giving man free will. Humanity’s grasping for meaning becomes a freer pursuit the less information God imparts. This is giving God’s very existence the benefit of the doubt, of course.

Our capacity to reason helps us out here.  On its own, it neither props up faith nor tears it down. “When we call man a rational animal we mean that reason is his great myth,” wrote the literary critic R.P. Blackmur. “Reason is plastic and takes to any form provided.”

Here’s an example of reason at work on the question of God’s powers. In an essay paying tribute to his ancient countryman Pliny the Elder, the late Italian novelist Italo Calvino points out Pliny’s assertion that it violates reason to suppose God could commit suicide, even if he wanted to. Similarly, God cannot un-create his creatures, nor can he reverse the course of time.

So God’s will has limits, dictated by reason, but they aren’t very reassuring ways of knowing him. They don’t bring him down to earth much. As Ralph Waldo Emerson warns us: “There is no doctrine of the Reason which will bear to be taught by the Understanding.” And reason won’t easily understand God by ascribing to him human qualities. I’ll look at three of them briefly: will, jealousy, and anger.

We talk about our wants, what we will. But as soon as we refer to the will of God, the analogy breaks down. What God wills is law; people talk about an outcome they desire, and some add piously, “God willing.” In tribute to our pagan heritage, others knock on wood. When humans break God’s law within their sphere of free action, they have sinned; they are defying what they believe God decrees. They are held to account. There are no plea bargains.

Similarly, when we are jealous, that’s an emotion aroused by what we feel is our due, something unjustly denied to us. But loyalty to God, by tradition, is absolute. When he is a jealous God, as he says up front in the Ten Commandments, it means that whatever behavior has aroused his jealousy is in error. There is no defense as there may be within the temporally conditioned jealousies of human beings. As a result, his anger is always justified, the Bible says. In Facebook terms, if we unfollow him, he may unfriend us.

The upshot is this: Sentences beginning “God” can have no other predicate besides “is.” Any ascription of qualities to him entangles him in the human condition. Emerson helpfully provides an out here: He says the special nature of Jesus, the mediator between us and God, is to declare that the gap has been bridged potentially in the existence of every person. “Through me, God acts; through me, speaks,” Emerson has him say. “Would you see God see me; or see thee, when thou also thinkest as I now think.”

As much as we UUs love Emerson, however, he tends to arouse a “Yes, but…” response. This is mine: The gulf between man and God is immense and much of it has to do with his unknowability. To illustrate this, I want to present an allegorical interpretation of Robert Frost’s poem “Home Burial.” I am not suggesting that the poet meant this poem to really be about the relationship between God and humanity, but the portrait of this rural farm couple can be seen as casting light from an oblique angle on the breakdown of the divine-human relationship.

Robert Frost put his marital stress into "Home Burial"
Frost tells a story in verse about an inert marriage, in which the process of bereavement is stuck on a child’s death and the difference in response to it between its father and its mother.
The man, like God, is both a loving and a terrifying figure. The woman thinks she knows him, and she doesn’t like what she knows because he has violated her fixed idea about the proper response to a family calamity. She represents the lingering resentment of humanity, which has a nagging sense that God, whose world this is, might be terrifyingly indifferent to the suffering in it.

The poem opens as he sees her looking out a window on a staircase: God likes spotting us when we are unaware. He asks her twice, “What is it you see.” Frost does not punctuate this with a question mark [contrary to the PoemHunter text linked to above], which suggests that the man, like the omniscient God, already knows the answer. Besides, to ask “what is it you see” is different from the blunter question “What are you looking at?” The way he frames the question also asks her to reveal her point of view, her interpretation.

The man quickly turns to command; “I will find out now – you must tell me, dear.” Worship of the superior being is a duty, and confession must be good for her soul. The loving God is also a commanding God, so the man comes up the stairs to where she is, “mounting till she cowered under him.” Despite her subordinate position, she turns the tables on him. What, humanity perennially wants to know, does God know about us? Does he ever see what we see the way we see it?

So the woman makes the man describe the scene, and he pretends to be so used to it he hasn’t noticed it in detail. He is slyly seeking a way to refresh the withered covenant. And he gives context to the view out the window: “The little graveyard where my people are, so small the window frames the whole of it.” In God’s view what is to be seen covers the whole span of life, from the site of procreation (“not so much larger than a bedroom, is it?”) to a life’s final resting place. But she interrupts him roughly when he mentions it: “the child’s mound.”

There’s a change in position now, a turn away from the window as she slips by him toward the door. Mankind is asking, not for the first time, if it can know and love a God who takes death in stride and still claim a close connection to the dead: “Can’t a man speak of his own child he’s lost?”

His commanding position is neutralized by her lack of faith; she wants to leave. He is not capable of knowing her any better, she thinks, so his offer to ask her a question is rejected. He wants to establish a basis for dialogue. He forges ahead nonetheless, but the question is not so much asked as the potential dialogue is framed, like the graveyard in the window. He wants to make a deal: What can we talk about that’s OK with you, and what do I have to leave alone? God is asking: When you pray to me, what should be off limits so that you will be more accepting of my answers?

Like the jealous Old Testament God, however, he warns her: “Don’t go to someone else this time,” and “Don’t carry it to someone else this time.” God is angry at his people’s falling away, seeking a connection to strange gods (as he and the prophets so often warn about), or in our own time, worldly distractions from what religion says should be our primary bond.

Especially revealing for my allegorical interpretation is the man’s odd plea: “Tell me about it if it’s something human. / Let me into your grief.”  But as so often in marital arguments, there is a sting in the tail of the request. God, being quick to assert his rights in the covenantal relationship, implies that humanity is restive, as usual. She flashes anger at him. And he really sounds like Jehovah — God in the clouds— when he says in response: “You make me angry. I’ll come down to you.”

He protests against her attempt to muzzle him. As the prophets so often
A child's fresh grave: Are divine and human views of death irreconcilable in "Home Burial"?
thundered, humanity wants to be deaf to God’s voice. It’s not telling people what they want to hear. They are stubborn; life’s hard knocks embitter them. Too often God places personal disaster in the midst of life’s stream; he’s above it all. The woman vents her rage, because for her the scene through the window does not exist over a time that puts the fresh grave in the context of older graves. Instead it is fixed on the man’s digging the grave, his absorption in the work. Can this be the way God wants to be known? Why can’t he be as fixated as we are on what moves us most? Why can’t he understand our narrowed focus?

So, what is the deity revealing about himself when he is like the father and husband come in from digging his baby’s grave and able to (as she accuses) “talk about your everyday concerns”? He is casual about the inevitability of decay and decline, in her view; the wife bitterly repeats his words: “Three foggy mornings and one rainy day / Will rot the best birch fence a man can build.”

The God of Nature philosophizes about rot. She rages against life and for once puts the man in the social world, blaming mourners who also turn to their own concerns to soon after the funeral. In despair, people can lose even the human connection, jettisoning both faith and reason: “The world’s evil. I won’t have grief so / If I can change it.”  God has listened to all this, knows humanity is wrong, closed in, and incapable of governing grief or the occasions for grief. So he speaks patronizingly to her, and is ready to reassert his command. He tries to check her move to leave by exclaiming: “Amy!  There’s someone coming down the road!”

This is the jealous God; no one on the outside should even suspect that the covenant is broken. Yet God, despite his occasional solicitous attitude, has not revealed anything about himself besides what the woman has described. He has merely protested her interpretation, and by the end puts his right to control uppermost. This time his question is genuine, for the first time in the poem. What are you after, if you can’t honor your bond with me? “Where do you mean to go?” Not waiting for an answer, in the next line he threatens: “I’ll follow and bring you back by force. I will!”  The poem is done.

God’s will be done, as Christians pray regularly in the Lord’s Prayer. Our sympathies with the man in this poem are checked by his commanding manner, despite genuine expressions of love; our sympathies with the woman are checked by her hysteria and her lack of both love and understanding.

You’ll notice she doesn’t waste any words of love on the dead child; it’s the man’s behavior, and the long view he seems to take of both personal and world woes, that alienates her. But she really has nowhere else to go. She neither loves nor understands him. He can’t explain himself, and the genuineness of his love is overmastered by his need to control. More than the child has been buried in “Home Burial”; as a place of comfort, home itself has been interred. Yet this is the home we all have to live in, where no approach to truth we take can make a truly transcendent God known to us.

Incarnation is the fusion of possibility — that there’s an eternal being behind time — with certainty; of potential and actual truth, of the transcendental and the terrestrial; of the infinite and the finite. A timely instance: “A Christmas Carol,” whose stage adaptation just concluded its annual run at Indiana Repertory Theatre, is flecked with the Christian message and underscores our theme in Ebenezer Scrooge’s encounter with the Ghost of Christmas Past, a figure so complex as to challenge the reader’s imagination, never mind any production team, even one as excellent as IRT’s.

Dickens hints at the shock of revelation with the Ghost of Christmas Past.
This ghost combines youth and age incongruously in its features; it comprises the seasons, carrying holly and wearing summer flowers; it is well-muscled, yet soft-spoken; it is primarily light but holds a cap which darkens, an “extinguisher,” Dickens calls it. Scrooge wants him to put it on; strong illumination of his past life rightly worries him.

The Spirit refuses: "Would you so soon put out, with worldly hands, this light I give? Is it not enough that you are one of those whose passions made this cap and force me through whole trains of years to wear it low upon my brow?"

IRT's Scrooge gets guidance from a youthful Spirit of Christmas Past.

This is a challenge to human understanding as extreme as anything in “A Christmas Carol.” It is close to Christian teaching: We read in the First Letter of John in the New Testament: "God is light and in him is no darkness at all. If we claim to be sharing in his life while we walk in the dark, our words and our lives are a lie; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, then we share together a common life.”

Such is the reassurance to Christians that most of us here in this room can’t be reassured by. But if there is a light that pierces the curtain behind which we live, when the rare possibility of Incarnation presents itself, will we know better than to ask it to don the cap darkening the light it brings with it?

And when we dare to confront its power, as Scrooge does at the end of his harrowing sojourn with the Ghost of Christmas Past, are we engaging in a struggle that strengthens us or keeps us in ignorance? Can knowledge hold a candle to faith? Flip the question around, if that makes more sense: Can faith hold a candle to knowledge?

At the outset of their journey together, Scrooge hesitates to step with the Spirit through his upstairs chamber window: “I am a mortal, and liable to fall.” The Spirit extends a hand, laying it over Scrooge’s heart: “Bear a touch of my hand there, and you shall be uplifted in more than this.” It’s a beautiful moment, a moment of faith, even love.

In Genesis, Jacob’s wrestling with the man some have identified as the pre-existent Jesus ends in his receiving a blessing, which alters a people’s destiny. At the end of his time travels with the Ghost of Christmas Past, Scrooge also loses a wrestling match with a supernatural figure, and must endure two more unsettling visions before being delivered into new life.

Can the knowledge revealed in Incarnation’s light ever be trusted as knowledge? In Scrooge’s case, is it nothing more than a kind of ethical shock treatment? In Dickens’ concept, a look into one’s past may open up vistas into eternity, but for the sake of his story, it’s sufficient that Scrooge learns enough about himself to effect a personal spiritual change, allowing him to re-enter the human family at Christmastime, the season of the Great Revelation.

It’s all we can do to stay open to something that may convey divine truth to us in our fleshly form, something that almost convincingly presents itself as knowledge about God. Yet we might well come away from such an experience saying, along with Citino’s man who couldn’t believe: “Damned if I know.”

Damned if I know. Even when morning gilds the skies.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Eric Nathan proves his mettle as a composer of unique skills in music for one player and more

Eric Nathan has a master's from Indiana University
Finding musical means for rendering the apprehensiveness of modern life, Eric Nathan — on the evidence of "Multitude Solitude" (Albany Records) — is among the new American voices worth hearing in solo and chamber compositions.

The title piece, "Multitude, Solitude," is a one-movement string quartet that explores the tension of being in crowds vs. being alone. In the course of a quarter-hour, this deeply urban score balances stasis and forward motion. Social buzz and solitude jostle in  assertive ensemble gestures and tiny lyrical phrases. It's all very controlled, and that's a good thing, since a piece of such a wide expressive range could easily seem scattered and directionless.

The Momenta Quartet plays the work's premiere recording with elan, a quality it also brings to two other of the disc's seven compositions. "Four to One" has a more generalized restlessness, but is also attractively scored, pointing toward the effect of "a sunset as the colors begin to fade." Nathan clearly exhibits an openness to conveying emotion, which he manages while reveling in the abstractness and palette of instrumental sound.

It's no surprise that when Nathan draws on the distant past, something like "Omaggio a Gesualdo" results. The Renaissance composer, famous for being one of classical music's few murderers, wove anguish into his harmonically adventurous vocal works. Nathan has the Momenta Quartet, plus violist Samuel Rhodes, evoking Gesualdo with close harmonies, small, shifting gestures, brief flourishes, and madrigal-like lines (especially near the end).

Expressiveness of almost opera buffa proportions shines through Quartet for Oboe & Strings. Oboist Peggy Pearson joins three Momenta members in the 12-minute piece. Complexity in the strings always serves the oboe, whose long phrases reflect an amusing self-importance. As full-bodied as the string instruments are, they seem in thrall to the vigor of the oboe, which manipulates the "plot" with subtly comical mastery.

Three solo pieces complete the disc. New York Philharmonic first trombonist Joseph Alessi plays "As Above, So Below," a piece that incorporates some alteration of the instrument (removal of a tuning slide) to bring a "shadow" trombone into play. The virtuosity is stunning, and the work stays free of the tediousness of many a modernist display piece.

"Three by Three," performed by pianist Mei Rui, is a compact suite with a relentless first movement, a fragile, questioning second, and a finale somewhat resembling Aaron Copland's Americana phase, but blithely underivative.

"Toying" brings trumpeter Hugo Moreno to the fore. This delightful piece for the instrument Nathan mastered in his youth is another three-part suite, rising through its offhand brilliance to "Ventriloquizing," a masterpiece of muted one-instrument interplay. That sounds like a contradiction in terms; you have to hear it to understand how well it works.

All the pieces receive their debut on disc with this release. The expert performances reveal a young composer with his own style and certainty, forthright, never overbearing, but at the same time not burdened by excessive reserve.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Guitarist Mike Moreno finds balance between lyrical and probing music in "Lotus"

Mike Moreno gets everything right with "Lotus."
There's a need for soft-spoken jazz that doesn't drift into the pallid legacy of Windham Hill records. It should be music that connects with the sort of listener who wants to pay attention to what's playing, rather than do something else while being soothed.

This is what guitarist Mike Moreno has come up with on "Lotus" (World Culture Music), a set of nine works for quartet that manage to be ingratiating and stimulating at the same time. Moreno has confined himself to a few longtime associates and deliberately narrowed the expressive compass in his choice of Eric Harland, drums; Doug Weiss, bass, and Aaron Parks, piano and Rhodes synthesizer.

Parks will be familiar to Indianapolis jazz fans as the 2001 Cole Porter Fellow of the American Pianists Association. Among his accomplishments since then, he was a Terence Blanchard sideman for several years, contributing much to the trumpeter's band through his composing and keyboard skills.

Many bandleaders succeed by bringing diverse musicians into the fold and making their unity in performance sound like a minor miracle. While I don't doubt that Moreno's sidemen are capable of expressing themselves independently, what they do on "Lotus" is fully submit to the leader's vision. Support for Moreno the composer is total here. In part, that fusion is achieved because the ensemble texture typically presents piano and guitar in unison. Furthermore, the bass is quite self-effacing (maybe a little too much so), and the drummer actually plays the compositions, rather than just providing the pulse.

My only previous exposure to the guitarist, a 37-year-old from Houston, was his label debut "Between the Lines," a 2007 release. Also 100 percent originals, that  disc uses the same pianist and bassist, a couple of different drummers (mainly label founder Kendrick Scott), plus saxophonists John Ellis, with tenorman Marcus Strickland on two tracks.

 It's no knock on Ellis or Strickland to say that the fifth man clutters what Moreno is all about on "Between the Lines." That's not to say he should never record with more than three other musicians; rather, in "Lotus" he's found a perfect fit between his rangy compositional muse and a performing style that favors thoughtful extension of the melodies that come to him.

Parks shows off his well-rounded phrasing and crisp articulation in his solo on "The Hills of Kykuit" and a strong, shapely tone in the bass register on "Blind Imagination." On "Hypnotic," Harland demonstrates how a drummer can kick up a lot of energy behind a band that animates but never disturbs the inherent calmness going on out front. Such drumming helps the piece live up to its title, the way hypnotism releases psychic energy that supports the affected personality in making the hypnotist's power of suggestion issue in behavior that seems second nature.

I'm not sure why the publicity for "Lotus" feels the need to tout the CD as "Moreno's most honest music to date." Normally I like to think a musician's honesty in his music can be assumed. But I guess the PR kudos is just another way of saying that a perfect fit between what drives a composer-player to create and its outcome in a published ensemble recording is relatively rare. If other influences persist in the result, however, it's no sign of dishonesty. It's just that occasionally all that background is pared away, and something pure and self-contained emerges. That's what happens in "Lotus."

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Actors' Playground does some serio-comic romping through 'The Subject Was Roses'

Jolene Mentink Moffatt, John Goodson, and Bill Simmons before reading "The Subject Was Roses,." in which they were much more in focus than this photo.
Coming up on its three-year anniversary, the Actors' Playground at Indy Reads Books takes place every third Monday as an outlet for professional actors' interest in plays they love. Getting words off the page and to at least the reading stage is the idea. When good actors are seated before you holding scripts (with someone to one side reading the stage directions) and using their mother wit to realize the drama, it's amazing how much the illusion of real theater can be created.

That was quite the case with this reading by Jolene Mentink Moffatt, John Goodson, and Bill Simmons, the series co-founder and this month's play selector. His choice was Frank D. Gilroy's "The Subject Was Roses," a family drama set in post-World War II New York City. The Clearys are of modest middle-class status and have to deal with the uncertainties of a new era amidst unresolved personal conflicts.

Their only child, Timmy, a returning veteran, is ill-at-ease back in his parents' Bronx apartment, and no wonder. Mom and Dad's time-tested incompatibility is set into bold relief by the sudden appearance of a young man in the household, years after they had said goodbye to their boy.

The ebb and flow of the Clearys' interaction was thoroughly involving in this reading, with pauses in all the right places (I'm guessing, but they sure felt right) and the volume and edge to the three characters' vocal strife stunningly projected.

Co-founder Lou Harry welcomed the audience of about a dozen people seated in front of the store's small stage. Simmons told attendees after the reading that "The Subject Was Roses" is among the "20th-century gems" that deserve revival — American plays that perhaps fall into a second tier (beneath works by Edward Albee, Tennessee Williams, and a few others, he suggested) but are solid, engaging, and relatively simple to stage.

Simply to have a revival to this extent was fun to experience as a supplement to staged productions here. This is a series I'll have to connect with more often.

These three actors were among a memorable cast in the Phoenix Theatre's production of "One Man, Two Guvnors" in September. Their  upcoming activities include "Skylight" (Theatre on the Square) and "On Clover Road" (Phoenix) for Simmons, beginning work on a graduate degree in educational psychology at Ball State University for Goodson, and "Book of Merman" (Phoenix) for Moffatt.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

The Deal of the Art: What if Donald Trump were a critic of classical music on the side?

The data-breach kerfuffle on the Democratic side could help the sparks fly in tonight's obscurely scheduled televised debate, but Secretary Clinton, Senator Sanders et al. still have some distance to go to equal the sizzle that's been generated thus far on the Republican side. An anxious public will have to wait till next month for the GOP hopefuls to mix it up again, but Donald Trump is sure to find ways to keep the attention focused on him until then. The flamboyance and irritation factor in his candidacy is off the charts, prompting me to wonder what it would be like for him to have also followed my core career path as a newspaper critic of classical music. This nearly defunct specialty has a history of exhibiting flamboyance and causing irritation, so in some sense it's not difficult to imagine how The Donald might handle a concert reviewing assignment.

By Donald J. Trump
Tower Music Critic

I've got Beethoven's Fifth all up here, and it's perfect.
You know whenever you put Beethoven's Fifth on a concert program everybody's gonna wanna come, right? That's a given. You have to be stupid not to know that. So it's no great credit to anyone's leadership in the symphonic world to get an audience with Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. And leadership is the key thing today. I'm a leader myself, a great one, and I know what leadership is all about.

Duh-duh-duh-DAH. You know that, everybody knows that. It's popular. I love it, everybody loves it. And I know it first note to last. My memory is terrific. I realize that sounds like bragging, but it's true.

So our symphony decides they will do this tremendous work by Ludwig van Beethoven once again, and the maestro gets up there, and OK, he does a pretty good job with it. Not great, but acceptable. But, you know, we have to go way beyond acceptable in America, whether it's with immigration or dealing with ISIS or Beethoven or whatever.

So it starts off OK, and you can't blame him for trying his best. That's all anyone can do, right? And it goes over fine, right from the first duh-duh-duh-DAH. How could it miss? It's Beethoven's Fifth, for crying out loud. This fellow, I think his name is Tibor Kashmychek, takes the repeat of the exposition, which has got to be done, no matter how well we know duh-duh-duh-DAH.

But then we get into the development, and soon there's that marvelous measure with the fermatas, you know, and the solo oboe player — a nice guy, I'm told — has that little flourish and it's Adagio, for just that measure. And he's supposed to cut back the volume right away, after everyone plays the first held chord forte or fortissimo. But this oboe player doesn't diminish. There's a hairpin there, clear as day. A certain suspense is lost, and that's too bad. I'm not feeling good about that, and I don't think that kind of thing is what we need to make America great again, frankly. He plays all the notes in that measure loud, and you just try getting a feeling of mystery while being loud about it. Doesn't work. Doesn't work.

Was the maestro in control? I wondered. Here his oboe player is just blasting through this wonderful slow measure. Did Kashmychek say anything about that in rehearsal? Granted, an oboe is never really loud, but still. Where's the leadership? Many people say, Donald J. Trump likes to be loud, he's always loud. But when I negotiate a deal, I know the value of nuance, of subtlety. I don't go into a negotiation with both guns blazing — blam! blam! — even though nobody loves the Second Amendment more than I do. Nobody.

Slow movement, fine. Nothing very memorable, but fine. The third movement, I don't think the maestro understands it. We got so many people, they get up on that podium, wave a stick, and they're clueless. It's a shame, really. And the sad thing here, among many sad things, is that he can't seem to get a true pianissimo in the coda, and it's pretty obvious everyone should be going pitter-pat, in this great kind of hesitant, tense way, and we know something's about to burst forth. But the orchestra is mezzo-piano at best, I'm hearing, and that's being charitable about it. And some of my best friends are orchestra musicians. They're wonderful people. It's not their fault.

Finally, it all goes into that big finale, and it's triumphant, just as it's going to be when I lead this country. Look at the polls. It's inevitable. But this performance is another story. Sure it's triumphant, but it's false somehow. Who can believe it? Anyone can make a lot of noise about being triumphant, but how are they doing it? You got to ask yourself the hard questions, and be honest about what you come up with. You can't lie, and keep going on like that forever. Some people try to, but that's not my way. And this guy, and I don't like to use his name, but you should remember it — Kashmychek — doesn't get it from the very first measure. I'll explain what I mean. I'm smart, and I believe you're smart, too.

"Elvira Madigan"'s doomed lovers: Who needs 'em?
Some of you don't follow this, but I do. Fourth movement: The trombones enter for the very first time, and it's a wonderful effect, but those fellows have got to sound like part of the team. It's difficult with trombonists, but it can be done. Ideally, you should be aware the trombones have gotten into the game, but those guys tonight stuck out like a sore thumb, frankly. If everybody else was fortissimo, they were triple forte. It was an embarrassment. Where's the leadership?

OK, so what else did they give us at this concert? The Mozart Piano Concerto No. 21 in C, sometimes nicknamed "Elvira Madigan." It's a shame this great piece got tied to a gloomy Swedish movie about a couple of losers, mismatched lovers who get into a suicide pact. That's not what this music is about, really. It's not what Mozart — a genius with money troubles, sure — was about. There's high spirits in it, a peppy march in the first movement, but the media doesn't want you to know about that. They'd rather sympathize with losers.

And how many people remember this foreign movie that's almost 60 years old, anyway? You don't want to think about losers when you're hearing great music. And don't get me wrong, I love Sweden. The Swedes are hard-working people; they've given us many great products — meatballs, deep-tissue massage — though that's not my thing — and Ingrid Bergman, a great actress. "Casablanca," "For Whom the Bell Tolls," tremendous, inspiring movies. As for "Elvira Madigan," try to forget about it. The soloist, Claude Arpeggio, was pretty good. I wouldn't hire him, myself; he sort of dawdled over that "Andante" they used in the movie. It's not "Largo," for heaven's sake. I suppose he was nimble enough in the outer movements, but he got all soft in the middle. It's the kind of thing that brings America down.

Well, I know you're all with me. The polls tell me that, and you've been great readers. I couldn't ask for better. Before I let you go — and I don't mean "you're fired!" — I should say the concert opened with a new piece, a commissioned something or other with a foreign title. It's obvious what the symphony is doing here: Put something that's harsh and unfamiliar on a concert with two surefire box-office hits and pat yourselves on the back for championing new music. Anyone can see through that. It doesn't really mean that ugly new piece ought to be there in the first place. When I'm president, we're going to build a wall around symphony programs, and keep this new alien stuff out. And get the International Society for Contemporary Music to pay for it.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Pacifica Quartet recording extends the legacy of Leo Ornstein with two of his large-scale chamber-music works

Simin Ganatra and Sibbi Bernhardsson, violins; Masumi Per Rostad, viola; Brandon Vamos, cello
The benefit to American culture of the deplorable fact of European anti-Semitism is commonly acknowledged. The Holocaust was foreshadowed by pogroms and other depredations arising from historical mistrust and hatred of European Jewry. Among the reasons for immigration here, many were rooted in persecution, as they are today (if the political winds ever become favorable).

One such period was the first decade of the 20th century, when fitful campaigns to harass Russian Jews produced exiles of the kind known best to Americans through the hit musical "Fiddler on the Roof." Such a threat forced the immigration to America of Leo Ornstein and his family in 1906 or 1907. The future composer-pianist-teacher lived a long life in his adopted homeland, dying in 2002 at the age of 108.

In his youth a piano prodigy, Ornstein was known mainly as a concert artist into the 1920s, but gradually withdrew from the limelight and went into relative obscurity. That affected the public status of his compositions as well, including works that gained him an initial reputation as a futurist and an apostle of everything modern in music.

Marc-Andre Hamelin is right for Ornstein
He pulled back from the avant-garde while still sounding untamed in such pieces as the Piano Quintet (1927) and String Quartet No.2, which the Pacifica Quartet presents on a Hyperion disc released this fall. Marc-Andre Hamelin, a champion of neglected repertoire, is the pianist in the quintet.

The first recording of Ornstein music wasn't made until 1975, supported by an award given by the National Institute of Arts and Letters. Besides "Moods," a short three-part suite for solo piano, the LP  is taken up with the quintet. The performance is from manuscript, an indication of the long twilight Ornstein's music suffered. He was not idle, however. As a pedagogue, he and his wife founded a music school in Philadelphia; among the musicians who studied there, in 1944-45, was the future jazz saxophone titan John Coltrane.

The new recording reflects a more settled virtuosity than the premiere account, as worthy as that is for its energy and lyrical control. The Pacifica and Hamelin are unwearyingly attentive to the variety of turbulence and soaring lyricism in the quintet, especially in the first movement, "Allegro barbaro." Fierce and unhinged as much of the score sounds, it keeps wanting to sing, largely in the Russian manner.

The second movement, Andante lamentoso, is a brooding gem. It's warmly played here, with great arching lines, descending at length into a lovely, long fade. The finale picks up some of the first movement's energy, deployed with almost Siberian expansiveness. As with Ornstein's early music, the quintet abounds in impulsive vigor. A performance like this one requires sustained emotional commitment as well as sheer stamina. These musicians have those qualities in abundance.

The slightly later String Quartet No. 2 is somewhat less interesting. High-flying violin melodies are set over a texture that relies more on atmosphere than substance. The slow movement keeps the intensity going, but with banked fires, and its material is less involving than the music in the corresponding movement of the quintet. The expressive variety characteristic of Ornstein in these two works suffers more arbitrary interruptions, it seems to me, in the quartet.

Nonetheless, this is a remarkable release honoring a composer with his own voice — one that recalled the Russian homeland vividly yet without nostalgia, one that spoke of the new homeland's thrusting ambition and the American idea, since quite tarnished, that good things will come to those with free imaginations who seize the day.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Two cheers for stupid people: They may have given us some immortal images, rubbed smooth into cliches

It's fun to note how responsive social media is to remarks about language and usage. This morning I encountered in a couple of journalistic sources the phrase "stark contrast" within a mere hour. I then realized the phrase is frequently pressed into service in journalism — like noting ironies that aren't really ironic.

So I posted on Facebook and Twitter a comment facetiously wondering how difficult it might be for journalists to give up yoking the two words together. (There are other kinds of contrasts, of course, but journalists seem partial to the stark kind.) The response to my remarks has been lively.

That got me thinking of somewhat longer phrases that are hallowed by overuse. I was spurred by a particularly funny "Guy Noir" segment on the Dec. 5 "A Prairie Home Companion."  Garrison Keillor's world-weary detective was tutoring a fictional Wal-Mart heir on term papers for various university classes.

What fate awaited too many babies like this after the bath was over?
At Noir's urging, the same current academic jargon was repurposed from one topic to the next — such terms as 'heterogeneous narrative," "hegemony," and "historicizing the democratic imperative." Later, by a plot twist too Keillorian to detail here, the phrases show up in a speech by Donald Trump (mimicked in the expert PHC manner).

Joining the trendy academese  — and sticking out like a sore thumb (you see how easy it is when cliches are the topic) — is "throwing the baby out with the bathwater." A homely cliche, no doubt of ancient origin. It evokes our rural forebears, bathing their young-uns in washtubs full of stove-heated water back when the used bathwater would be tossed into the yard when the chore was done.

The creative genius of folk culture seems inadequate to explain how this expression got started. Since stupidity is so much in our minds nowadays, thanks to the perpetual presidential campaign, I figure "throwing the baby out with the bathwater" must have originated in that particular carelessness having come up a few times. Before a figure of speech can become figurative, it had to be literal, right? "The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows," as Robert Frost said.

I can hear a cabin-bound housewife noting with asperity to her husband, son, or brother-in-law (for men are the cliche culprits in such stupidity): "You hear that wailin' comin' from over yonder in the yard, Zeke? You wouldn't have thrown the baby out with the bathwater again, would ya?"

"I don't rightly know. I suppose I coulda." The man looks around the bath area and fails to see a clean baby, or any other kind. "I guess mebbe I did."

"Well, go fetch him in here and wrap him up good. Poor fella could catch his death of cold. And try to remember not to throw the baby out with the bathwater."

We may owe a few cherished cliches to stupid people.
Seems more than one such reminder wouldn't be necessary, but the phrase hung on somehow as a warning not to discard anything valuable in any process with a byproduct you might want to get rid of. We all have some anonymous stupid person in the distant past to thank for first needing this valuable advice. Advice which, sadly, may have required more than a few repetitions — and the injury or even demise of several babies — before it passed into the common language.

Subtler cliches of the same ilk may not always have arrant stupidity behind them. "Carrying coals to Newcastle," for example, when Newcastle, England, was a coal-producing center, would not be stupid in the event of a miners' strike. But there is certainly no case when throwing the baby out with the bathwater can be considered a wise practice. Except, perhaps, where particularly annoying babies are concerned.

I'll hazard a guess that Zeke, or someone like him (I somehow see a stupid Russian, a lout out of Chekhov or Gogol), gave to posterity another bit of folk wisdom that has attained cliche status. It probably went something like this:

"Vladimir Semyonovich, give up — put away the whip, please!"

"Why? I have to get to town by sunset, and this nag just won't move."

"That's because she's dead. She doesn't have another miserable step left in her. You'll just have to walk home and explain it to your long-suffering wife. How is Sofia Maronova, by the way?"

"Well, she's kind of gloomy these days."

"Of course. She's Russian. What do you expect?"

"I came home last week and she was just sitting in a corner bawling. She had spilled some milk. I had to clean it up. It had been hours, the day was hot, and the milk was starting to stink. So I'm worried about her. Now, I suppose you're going to tell me I can't beat a dead horse."

"That's right. There's no way around it, Vladimir Semyonovich. A dead horse simply isn't going anywhere."

"Well, thank you, Vadim Morovich." The crestfallen horse-beater starts trudging off toward his home in the town of N_________, a village so poor it has had to trade the other letters in its name for bread, vodka, and other necessities. Did I mention the vodka?

 "You can't beat a dead horse," Vladimir calls back over his shoulder. "I'll have to remember that. Everyone should remember that."

"They will, Vladimir Semyonovich.  I have a feeling they certainly will."

Monday, December 14, 2015

"Hark? The herald angels sing?": An assertive Christmas favorite recast, updated, in uptalk

Image boldly proclaiming a pre-uptalk message
Sometimes I hear a public radio interview with someone chosen for their knowledge of a particular subject, and it's a little unsettling when they exhibit a recent tendency to end declarative sentences as if they were questions.  The voice rises, and they go on to the next sentence or clause, concluding that one the same way. "Uptalk" makes the talker seem as if he or she is seeking approval as the discourse progresses. I'm sure you've heard this too?

So, in this season when boldly assertive hymns and carols are belted out in churches and elsewhere, I wondered if it would reflect widespread skepticism about the Christmas message to recast such a beloved declaration as "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing" in uptalk.

Along the way, I thought other contemporary speech habits, including slang and in-vogue colloquialisms, would make suitable partners for uptalk. Stylistic consistency is important. (If you sing what follows, uptalk will be harder to convey without the addition of a higher note at the end of each phrase. Experiment as you will? We can all be fluent in uptalk? Merry Christmas?)

Hark? The herald angels sing?
When did this become a thing?
God got hip to stuff we’re into?
(Trigger warning: that means sin, too?)

See how he impacts our lives,
Calling husbands, children, wives,
Same sex partners, cis and trans?
All are Jesus’ hugest fans?

Hark? The herald angels sing?
When did this become a thing?

We’re like, Jesus, fix this mess —
You duh man for awesomeness?
He’s like, I can’t do it totes —
Here’s the music, play the notes?

Do the work and I’ll just chill?
If you mess up, that’s God’s will?
Now I’m diapered in a stable,
Grown, I’ll eat at the cool kids’ table?

Hark? The herald angels sing?
When did this become a thing?

Sunday, December 13, 2015

ISO's conductor laureate bids farewell to the annual Classical Christmas series he started

Moving haltingly at age 88, Raymond Leppard, upon ascending the podium and lifting his baton, still elicits graceful music from the orchestra he guided here for 14 seasons.

Raymond Leppard
Music-lovers were able to take in this treat for the last time Saturday evening as Leppard conducted a Classical Christmas concert — that annual respite from Yuletide Celebration on the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's schedule. Since 1998, Leppard has kept the core repertoire alive in the minds, hearts and fingers of ISO musicians. Together, they have sustained the ISO's classical fan base through the run of the popular Yuletide Celebration (which accounted for the absence of many members and the presence of many replacements Saturday).

For the finale at Butler University's Schrott Center for the Arts, Leppard chose repertoire that (he announced) was inclined to a more spiritual emphasis than some of the series' predecessors. After the limpid flute melodies of Gluck's "Air" and "Dance of the Blessed Spirits" from "Orfeo ed Euridice," the centerpiece was one of Franz Schubert's early masses, No. 2 in G major. That also served as the main showcase for regular Classical Christmas guest Apollo's Voice, an outstanding chamber choir based at Indiana University directed by Jan Harrington. Six soloists from the group acquitted themselves marvelously.

This is a simple setting, in which the ability to project the straightforward charm and lyricism natural to the teenage Schubert is uppermost. This sort of writing is a snug fit for Leppard's characteristic musicianship. Both orchestra and chorus exhibited shapely phrasing and understated expressiveness.

There's little drama here: Composers often flexed that kind of muscle in setting the "Credo," contrasting the glum "He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, suffered and was buried" with the subsequent celebration of the Resurrection. Schubert simply underlines the passage I've quoted with trenchant "marcato" writing for the strings, which speaks volumes; when Jesus rises, so does the brightening texture.

It's straightforward stuff. The Credo ends quietly, and so does the concluding Agnus Dei — in this performance with a feather-soft diminuendo. The  fugal "Osanna in excelsis" that caps both the Sanctus and the Benedictus is almost startling, given the absence of counterpoint in the work as a whole.

(Someday I will have to find out why so many choral directors train their singers to pronounce the mass's initial word, "Kyrie," as if there were an "h" after the "K." Thus pronounced, the consonant sounds identical to the "Ch" in "Christe," which begins the second phrase of the "Kyrie" section. Since those initial words begin with two different Greek letters, kappa and chi, I've often wondered if we should hear the distinction.)

To showcase the orchestra, Leppard chose one of the Handel concerti grossi from Opus 3 that he recorded decades ago with the English Chamber Orchestra. Saturday's performance sounded much different to me, a little more stately in the first Allegro, for instance, which keeps that insubstantial movement from sounding perfunctory, as Handel sometimes can. The soloing — by concertmaster Zach De Pue and principal oboist Jennifer Christen — was first-class.

Leppard is a famous adapter, which occasioned much controversy in his native Britain early in his career. To conclude the concert, he adapted and arranged Hugo Wolf's "Schlafendes Jesuskind" (Sleeping Christ-child), a solo lied turned here into a choral number for Apollo's Voice. With a string orchestra replacing the original piano accompaniment, the late romantic harmonies were somewhat softened in comparison..

The translation of the Eduard Mörike poem Wolf set smooths out the knotted text of the original, yet retains the foreshadowing of Jesus' suffering that the Nativity scene evokes in pious minds. Leppard used a "singing translation," of course, that fits the notes well. The English text's presence of Mary and the wish that we could bear Christ's agony are imported from mere hints in the original.
Joelle Harvey had much to do with making "Past Three O'Clock" the concert''s highlight.

Soprano Joelle Harvey (no relation to the blogger) soloed in Leppard's stunning "Past Three O'clock: A Sequence of Carols." Her performance was remarkable for clarity of diction, expressive warmth,  and a consistently open, well-rounded tone.

Leppard's signature — his temperament as well as his musical skills — is all over this set. The carols are performed with minimal pauses, often linked by chimes. The arrangements reflect Leppard's innate good taste. He resists anything showy, and he avoids excessive underlining of each carol's mood. For example, a muted string quartet lies behind the opening of "In the Bleak Midwinter."  With a change of key signaled by the chimes, woodwinds perk up a vision of Madonna-and-child affection in "I Saw a Fair Maiden." The finale, "Lord of the Dance," is joyous without going off the deep end of exuberance.

This exquisite set sums up, as performed Saturday evening, what I want to remember as much as anything else in the Raymond Leppard ISO legacy.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

"Jim Dandy To the Rescue" repurposed as "Dick Cheney to the Rescue": A peek into the former vice president's mind

So statesmanlike of the former Vice President to distance himself from a candidate's proposal to bar Muslims from the US. Here's a version of the Jim-dandy thoughts that might be running through his head.
Posted by Jay Harvey on Thursday, December 10, 2015
Dick Cheney to the Rescue

The GOP’s next POTUS also gotta be controlled:
Being just vice president soon gets old.
So when the Donald says to keep all Muslims out,
It makes me grow a conscience, it makes me wanna shout:

Dick Cheney to the rescue —
Go, Dick Cheney, go!

And no one better tell me that I just don’t care:
Let the good Muslims enter, kill the others over there.
My heart’s in the right place, thanks to my surgeons:
We’ll deprive the would-be martyrs of a hundred thousand virgins!

Dick Cheney to the rescue,
Dick Cheney to the rescue
Dick Cheney to the rescue,
Go, Dick Cheney, go!

Our invasion of Iraq, when Saddam Hussein was hurtin’
Was awesome for our country, and so good for Halliburton.
I have two / firm / rules: Pretend to love the human race
And when huntin’ with a friend, try not to shoot him in the face.


My mouth twists when I smile like it’s been hit with a brick;
No matter what else happens, I will always be a Dick:
I suggested to Pat Leahy that he stick his in his rump,
Now everyone’s amazed I’ve got more class than Donald Trump!


Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Strayhorn's "Nutcracker": "Sweetpea" comes back into the spotlight in UIndy centennial celebration

Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn at work.
Duke Ellington freely acknowledged the help he received from Billy Strayhorn. But the great bandleader had a genius for being the center of attention even while letting the public know how much he valued his closest associates, of whom the composer-arranger was the most crucial.

Strayhorn (1915-1967) gave Ellington his theme song, "Take the 'A' Train," with which the University of Indianapolis Collaborative Jazz Orchestra opened a concert Monday night focusing mainly on the two men's recasting of Tchaikovsky's first "Nutcracker" Suite.

Thus, a seasonal theme blended nicely with the centennial salute before a near-capacity crowd in UIndy's Ransburg Auditorium. Freddie Mendoza, the director of jazz studies, masterminded the celebration.

As helpful as Ellington's professional adoption of him was to his creativity, Strayhorn had showed his gifts well before joining forces with Ellington.

Sufficient evidence of that lies in "Lush Life," a complicated song both musically and lyrically, which Strayhorn wrote as a teenager.  The UIndy Jazz Combo — consisting of pianist James Loughery, bassist Mike Fox, and drummer Giuana Neville accompanying singer Megan Ramp — made a sterling effort to sound on top of this roller coaster of a song, whose sprawling form is probably unique. The program notes said "Lush Life" defeated another centennial birthday boy, Frank Sinatra, who mastered everything else he lent his voice to.

Strayhorn displayed precociousness more in the music than in the lyric, whose conspicuous reliance on feminine rhymes shows him not in the same league as Cole Porter or Ira Gershwin.  The world-weary attitude of the text is unusual for a songwriter of such tender years, however.

The concert opened with two other Strayhorn classics that covered his expressive range after he hit his stride with Ellington. "Take the 'A' Train" found the band, comprising students, alumni and local professionals, ready for action. Each section sounded fine, with the reeds especially solid, as they also proved to be in the one-clarinet, four-saxes blend of "Chelsea Bridge."

After intermission, all that appetite-whetting music set up the atmosphere for the "Nutrcracker" Suite. Atmosphere was in place visually from the start. Giant snowflakes were projected on the side and back walls. Two monumental soldier nutcrackers flanked the stage.

Mendoza's trombone was heard near the end.
The Overture set the tone, swinging handsomely. Its music was to return in a Mendoza-appended feature providing a rousing conclusion, with round-robin solos from the 18-member ensemble. The director capped the series by bringing his trombone into play for the first time of the evening, the band riffing back into the tune in a manner calculated to stir the soul.

Up to then, there was wince-inducing difficulty only in "Toot Toot Tootie Toot," a droll setting of "Dance of the Reed Pipes (Mirlitons)." The reeds didn't have the jiving hocket style down pat, but it's among the score's major challenges, after all. On the whole, I liked the vigor and moodiness that was applied to Strayhorn's interpretation of Tchaikovsky. Through the high level of ensemble cohesiveness, Mendoza's preparation of the music was firmly displayed. No surprise, as this was the 15th time he's conducted it — the first time at UIndy.

The solos were properly delivered in the style of Ellington's outstanding sidemen. I want to single out the old pro trombonist Rich Dole's channeling of Lawrence Brown (especially on "Chelsea Bridge") and the work of two students in particular: Amanda Gardier's Johnny Hodges sound in "Arabesque Cookie" (Arabian Dance) and Evan Drybread's approximation of Paul Gonsalves in "Peanut Brittle Brigade" (March). The special character of Ellington's best players can hardly be duplicated, but the effort was consistent. It's not easy to get the wry Ray Nance humor into even a well-played trumpet solo, for instance.

Some nits to pick now: The program could have been more scrupulously proofread: Mendoza's predecessor, Harry Miedema, didn't deserve to have his name misspelled. And the most inventive of the movements, "Dance of the Floreadors" (Waltz of the Flowers), was omitted from the list on the main page, though it was described in the notes.

Furthermore, the university's guest, Strayhorn nephew Larry Strayhorn, could have been more concise and focused in his remarks from the stage. And when he turned to Shawn Goodman and quizzed her on the name of Ellington's "bass,"  I thought, "Why Aaron Bell? Is this a trivia quiz?" After an awkward pause, it was clear that Strayhorn was asking her to supply the name of Harry Carney, who indeed was the icon of the baritone saxophone, the instrument Goodman was playing.