Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra's "Basically Baker Vol. 2" memorializes seminal jazz educator David Baker

Almost 12 years ago, with the honoree still very much alive and active heading jazz studies at Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music, the Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra recorded "Basically Baker" for Gunther Schuller's GM label.
The soul of Indiana jazz education: David Baker (1931-2016)

In June, at a studio in Bloomington, a BWJO with significant changes of personnel expanded on that project with a two-disc set of David Baker compositions and arrangements. "Basically Baker Vol. 2" (Patois Records) is a culminating tribute by Brent Wallarab, Mark Buselli and their colleagues to the Indianapolis native, who died last March.

Adventurous in his jazz visions as a performer as well as a composer, Baker in these big-band charts challenges performers with countermelodies, key changes, washes of acoustic sound, rhythms that rub up against each other, and the spice of dissonance. When we hear the skittering of saxophones complicating the introductory measures of "Harlem Pipes" (the first disc's opening track), we know we are in a questing milieu. And it's a good place to be.

Even the relaxed pieces, such as the no-stress calypso "Walt's Barbershop" (featuring an exuberant Rob Dixon tenor solo) are dotted with challenges: the precise ensemble without rhythm-section support near the end, for example. Many pieces show off a composition's different facets, but not so drastically as to fragment it. Rich Perry's laconic tenor near the start of "Soft Summer Rain"  presents one side of the piece, while later, riding on a tempo boost, Tim Coffman's trombone solo suggests that those soft summer rains can energize us, too.

David Baker always had a down-to-earth side, for all his musical sophistication. So the typical variety within each number seems to present the whole man.  "Black Thursday,"  for example, is like a jaunty stroll down "the Avenue," keyed to Bill Sears' alto saxophone solo. I think of this pace and the swagger that goes with it as a "Killer Joe" tempo, after the famous Farmer-Golson Jazztet song. Mark Buselli's sly, plunger-muted trumpet solo is like a stylish man looking out curiously from under a fedora with a snappy brim pulled low on the forehead. It yields the street to a punchy, accented episode recalling Art Blakey's "Blues March." No one was more steeped in the 1950s idiom that produced such music than Baker.

The one work on the two discs not by Baker, but featuring his arrangement, is Dizzy Gillespie's "Bebop." It offers another indication of Baker's insider status with the era's most characteristic jazz. And Graham Breedlove's trumpet solo thoroughly captures the Dizzy spirit, glinting in and around the upper register.

It's hard to adequately credit all the good work on these two CDs  without getting long-winded. Rarely, a piece's basic material seemed a little weak, but the arrangement and the solos rescued it. In "Shima 13," for instance, solos by pianist Luke Gillespie and tenorman Perry prove well worth waiting for. Otherwise, the piece struck me as somewhat tedious.

Co-leader Wallarab describes this project as "a way we could all channel our grief into something productive," and the result will certainly buoy up the many people, musicians and fans alike, who remember Baker fondly. Proceeds from sales of "Basically Baker Vol. 2" will go to the David N. Baker Scholarship Fund to benefit IU jazz students.

"Chimes of Freedom" revised to comment on the through line from resistance to the 14th Amendment to today's voter suppression

Sunday, November 27, 2016

IRT evergreen: Janet Allen returns to directing 'A Christmas Carol" for the first time since 1998

The dramatic crux of this year's production of "A Christmas Carol" by Indiana Repertory Theatre occurs when the up-and-coming Ebenezer Scrooge pauses on the stairway to his lonely counting-house perch to scrutinize the ring his distraught fiancee Belle has just returned to him.
Ghostly tours of his life behind him, Ebeneezer Scrooge begins to discover joy.

In that moment, Dickens' durable miser confirms his change of heart from someone alive to the fullness of his experience to a man dead to anything beyond his narrow focus on a fiercely guarded wealth he's unable to enjoy. Charles Pasternak's intense, jeweler's-loupe view — the merest moment in an opening-night performance full of revelations from a seasoned cast under the guiding hand of Janet Allen — feels like a dark parody of transubstantiation.

Like wine to Christ's blood in the rite of Eucharist, the ring changes from its symbolic promise on Belle's finger to a commodity in the fledgling businessman's grasping hand. Oscar Wilde defined a cynic as someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. When Scrooge puts on a cynicism that will last until four ghostly visits convert him, his course is set. For IRT, Ryan Artzberger once again represents the iconic skinflint suffering under visions of his past, present, and future before being delivered back to heartening experience.

At the end, this Scrooge becomes aware of his supernatural spiritual renewal in a fit of sobbing that turns into laughter. All is not lost, it dawns on him, and his outburst of silliness has been hard-earned. "Silly" is a cognate of the German word "selig," which means "blessed." Artzberger signaled the blessing Scrooge recognizes in two marvelous ways: I liked the tonelessness, the stunned, blank quality he gave to the repeated line "I don't know what to do." The Scrooge whom everyone recognized and tried to avoid on the street always knew what to do; the Christmas spirit he firmly rejected lies at the opposite pole from that steely certainty.

Even the cruel winter weather could not gain the upper hand over Scrooge, Dickens writes. In this production, it overcomes the street urchin singing "In the Bleak Midwinter," a song then taken up by the compassionate Lamplighter (Scot Greenwell), joined by an ensemble of the play's characters before the story gets under way. The vulnerability of children is immediately set in contrast to Scrooge's apparent imperviousness.

Returning to the last scene: After simple astonishment at his second chance, giddiness about his reclamation floods over Scrooge.  He praises the boy passing on the street below for the lad's direct answers to his questions; a plan has formed in Scrooge's mind to have a large turkey sent from the neighborhood poulterer to his long-suffering clerk, Bob Cratchit (more lovable than ever in Jeremy Fisher's portrayal), and his family. The boy is the first real-life agent of Scrooge's new orientation to the world, so of course he is "delightful," "intelligent," "remarkable." The genuine buoyancy in the actor's voice put a seal of authenticity on the miser's transformation.

Allen's approach to the Tom Haas adaptation of Dickens' short novel is in some respects more direct than that of her immediate predecessor, Courtney Sale. The action seems to be placed more forward, under lighting that doesn't attempt to compete with the ubiquitous snow on the raked stage.  If I recall correctly, there is a more frequent use of trapdoors this year. The miraculous happenings are less shrouded. Stagecraft is as boldly evident as it is in, say, "Our Town."

The large frame that serves as a doorway to several interiors and the mirror in which Scrooge first encounters a vision of his deceased partner, Jacob Marley, is also used — when held horizontally — as a box or a cell, briefly signaling Scrooge's confinement within his isolating mature self. The Christmas frolics of Fezziwig, the young Scrooge's  employer (Robert Neal at his most boomingly gregarious), together with the later revels at nephew Fred's, indulge more wholeheartedly in Dickensian caricature than the 2015 production. In vigorous support of them, the contributions of composer and sound designer Andrew Hopson are more pronounced.

Superstar of death metal: Goad as Marley's Ghost
A specialist in devised theater, Sale eschewed any feeling of set pieces in favor of an open flow of action amid a few refreshing anachronisms. By no means does this production lack imaginative touches, however. I've already mentioned young Scrooge's stopping to consider the returned ring's marketability. Pasternak, who also plays Scrooge's nephew Fred, makes the most of another original episode: Though the text presents Fred as relentlessly upbeat and steeped in Christmas cheer, Pasternak makes him a little edgy and argumentative in the scene in which Scrooge dismisses his nephew's Christmas invitation. I thought this worked as a legitimate way of interpreting the Scrooge-Fred dialogue. Pardon the vulgarity, but I liked the more ballsy Fred.

Charles Goad's presentation of Marley's Ghost clanked menacingly and spoke in blood-curdling tones of warning. His costuming and makeup looked straight from the tomb. The other three spirits (Emily Ristine, Milicent Wright, and Rob Johansen) were uncomplicated guides, strict teachers richly distinguished from each other, all focused on reminders and admonitions. When the Ghost of Christmas Present swept downstage and (quoting Dickens) said: "You have never seen the like of me before!" the audience responded with a laugh of recognition. It was a pure Milicent Wright moment — in her best performances, it's just how she comes across, though that
Milicent Wright as the Ghost of Christmas Present
message is usually unspoken.

So much else could be said about this show, but why risk arousing Scroogian "Bah, humbugs!" from my blog visitors? I want to suggest, however, that "A Christmas Carol" seems to me more than a seasonally specific entertainment and more than a literary classic. I see it as genuine modern myth,  with Scrooge as an outsized, unlikely hero. Writing with keen foresight into the long-term effects of the Industrial Revolution, Dickens anticipated what the Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton has called the commodification of experience. Scrooge has become alienated from the truth of his own experience ("I had forgotten," he says pathetically to the Ghost of Christmas Past), with everything he cherishes reduced to mere calculation, figures in a ledger.

Most of us may not be close to Scrooge's flinty meanness, but the modern world encourages us to confer value upon our experiences, as he did, based upon what we have invested in them, what they have cost us. Dickens foresaw the danger of turning how we live into a treadmill and repository of consumption.

We have to trust that there is a different way, "A Christmas Carol" reminds us. One of the novella's most moving scenes, left out of Haas' mostly pitch-perfect adaptation,  recommends such trust. At the outset of their journey, the Ghost of Christmas Past invites Scrooge simply to step out of his apartment's second-floor window; Scrooge understandably balks. "'Bear but a touch of my hand there,' said the Spirit, laying it upon his heart, 'and you shall be upheld in more than this!'"
The Ghost of Christmas Past (Emily Ristine) emerges to guide Scrooge.

Along with Tiny Tim's hope that churchgoers seeing his crutch might think of Him who healed the lame and restored sight to the blind, this is the most explicitly Christian passage in the story. Yet "A Christmas Carol" doesn't require that you subscribe to any particular belief. A myth resists literalism. It holds out resonating values each can apply in his or her own way across a wide swath of common culture. 

As the IRT production amply demonstrates, it can be fully entertaining as well as instructive to savor the benefits of not commodifying our experience. The alternative might mean sinking to the assessment of Old Joe (Goad again) in the Christmas Yet to Come scene — a receiver of stolen goods haggling with greedy scavengers over the fair price of a dead, unlamented pennypincher's personal effects.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire, Burning Away Cliches: 'A Very Phoenix Xmas 11' hits the stage

Tilting toward seasonal  harmony, a striking setting of "Carol of the Bells."
I used to think a certain lively Christmas carol was addressed to "merry gentlemen," but that was before I became versed in the subtleties of punctuation. My father, a church choir director, first pointed out to me that the title (and first line) runs, "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen," and the conscientious singer should insert the slightest of pauses after "merry."

A minor "aha" moment — yet not irrelevant when considering Phoenix Theatre's latest version of its popular "Very Phoenix Xmas" series, a seasonal variety show stitching together submitted playlets with cleverly produced songs and commentary.

You see, that English carol pegs the wish that the gentlemen be merry on the grace of God in arranging for the birth of the Savior on the day we celebrate as Christmas. They are not merry to begin with.

In the broader culture of today, more receptive to other religious orientations and on the whole determinedly secular, the gentlemen (where are the ladies, one wonders?) no longer enjoy the narrow point of rest that "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" holds out to them. We're all on our own when it comes to merriment.

That heavy burden makes the carol's "tidings of comfort and joy" hard to identify and internalize now, especially in light of election results that producing director Bryan Fonseca boldly addresses in the program's printed insert. The production doesn't waste time on hand-wringing, however. "A Very Phoenix Xmas 11" gathers in the holiday season's nagging lack of comfort and joy while vowing successfully "to respect and celebrate this special time of year," in Fonseca's words.

Seen on opening night Friday, the show delivers across the emotional spectrum. It is both humane and caustic, open-hearted and cryptic, boisterous and reflective. The range is tied together with continuity provided by Fonseca and Phoenix playwright-in-residence Tom Horan and voiced by cast member Jay Hemphill, ringing the changes on the stereotypical cowboy he plays in the first dramatic scene as he expounds on peculiar Christmas customs around the world.
Walt Disney (left) visits  his "Small World" singers, awaiting the next boat.

The international perspective is launched by Mark Harvey Levine's spoof of the dancing dolls in Walt Disney's Magic Kingdom. Precisely costumed and moving with mechanized zest, a sextet of national stereotypes gripes, banters or shrugs about the work of delivering "It's a Small World" every time a boat approaches. The routine of mindless work for the sake of ensuring others' kitsch-laden happiness is ripe for satire; it's a tradition going back to S.J. Perelman's "Waiting for Santy," a 1935 parody of the agitprop theater of Clifford Odets. Levine is a proven "Phoenix Xmas" champion of poking fun at the season; last year's "Oh Tannenbaum" was a highlight of that show.

A feast of contentiousness: Celebrating the holiday in the Age of Trump.
The cast brings such a variety of personality and poise to the sketches and songs. The dancing styles stipulated by Mariel Greenlee's spirited choreography are well-met challenges. With mixed results, the actors are called upon to mimic a host of accents, which it would be cumbersome to enumerate here. Besides Hemphill, this Ocean's 11 of a show heists the audience's holiday reserve immediately: Jean Childers-Arnold, Paeton Chavis, Paul Collier Hansen, Andrea Heiden, Devan Mathias, and Keith Potts.

On a dark stage, in ovoid costumes outlined by strings of lights, Heiden, Hemphill, and Chavis get things started dancing with designed clumsiness to "Carol of the Bells," ending with the diminutive Chavis getting bumped to the floor. It's a sign of the undercurrent of untoward outcomes built into the show. There will be constant struggles to find comfort and joy, from the jerrybuilt Nativity scene assembled across sectarian lines in devastated Homs, Syria (by Kenyon Brown) to the unanticipated complications of air travel in "Home for Christmas" (by Andrew Black).

These are among several excursions into political matters rubbing up against the vaunted Christmas spirit. Politics having become so much about status and identity, the levels of preference airlines build into their handling of passengers and the attractions of personal "re-branding" are neatly addressed in Black's piece.

The audience-participation gimmick of Mad Libs works well in Lizz Leiser's "Holiday Dinner." Opposing viewpoints that emerge in family gatherings (already sharpened by tense Thanksgiving feasts) are mocked by inserting the audience's submitted nouns, adjectives, and verbs into scripted dialogue so as to obliterate sociability in a food fight of name-calling.

The insistence of often self-marginalized groups upon "safe spaces" forces rewritten "Progressive Christmas Carols" (PAINT, aka Jon Cozart) to skirt offensiveness by such awkward detours as that suggested by this show's subtitle, "I'm Dreaming of an Intersectionally Thoughtful Multicultural Winter Holiday."

The welter of cultural input during the season gets a somewhat confusing send-up of tour-guide narrative, pagan investment, and visitor thrill-seeking in the first-act finale, Jean Childers-Arnold's "Stonehenge Midwinter." Sometimes the season's disturbances take the form of illness, setting aside culture and politics. In "Phoenix Xmas 11," this varies from a moving narrative poem by Lauren Briggeman, recited by Childers-Arnold with informal brilliance, to Steve Korber's "World's Worst Christmas," in which Potts and Mathias play superbly two pharmacy customers on Christmas Eve who fall into a kind of rock-paper-scissors game of holiday self-pity.

The set by Jeffery Martin and Bernie Killian has a carefully assembled junkyard ambiance — with ladders, discarded tires, I-beams and other urban flotsam and jetsam whose purpose becomes clear in the Homs sketch. Projections on the area's few flat surfaces enliven several episodes, especially a devastating vocal-ensemble setting of a Verdi prayer aria and a mordantly funny Dutch solo song (with translation and film clips).

This is a brave show. There's enough jolliness in it to satisfy those who insist on comfort and joy. But thinking about that set brings to mind the  difficult solace that William Butler Yeats sought in "The Circus Animals' Desertion." The Phoenix casts a jaundiced eye at the holiday season's "circus animals," its tinselly images and confections.

"A Very Phoenix Xmas 11" finds plenty still to celebrate. Contrary to the Magic Kingdom's recorded reminder, it does not remain seated or keep its hands inside the boat, which is on a dark ride in more than one sense. The ladders of war-wrought Homs have nothing to ascend to. And yet, with Yeats, "now that my ladder's gone/ I must lie down where all the ladders start/ In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart."

Not your usual cup of Christmas cheer, is it? But, as in Yeats' poem, the heart has the final word. Let nothing you dismay.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Mark Ortwein brings his visiting son into the quartet mix at Fountain Square Brewery

John Fell, Mark Ortwein, Craig Hetrick, Olas Ortwein.
It was a bit of a pre-Thanksgiving lift to motor ten miles through a chilly, rainy evening to Fountain Square Brewery to catch a special edition of the Ortwein JazzTet, featuring the leader's son Olas on electric bass.

A pint of Backyard Porter to accompany listening to a set-and-a-half didn't hurt, of course.

Olas is visiting for Thanksgiving from New Orleans, where he lives, plays and studies. He sat in with his saxophonist-bassoonist dad Mark and his regular colleagues Craig Hetrick, drums, and John Fell, guitar.

I came in during a hearty excursion through Horace Silver's "Song for My Father" and left near the end of the second set, when the Beatles' "Yesterday" was drifting toward a wistful close.

In between came some versions of two of the multi-reed player's contributions to Icarus Ensemble book, the jagged "Schizoid" and the tender ballad "Lunar Love," plus adventures in Theloniousland — "Monk's Blues" and "Well You Needn't" — s couple of durable Coltrane pieces ("Impressions" and "Lonnie's Lament"), and an Olas original whose title I didn't catch.

I was most elated by the quartet's performance of the Theme from "Black Orpheus," in which the leader played the bassoon, the instrument of his "day job" in the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. That's also where the spot-on drummer Hetrick, here making efficient, splendid use of a small kit (tom, snare, bass drum and three cymbals, including hi-hat) plies his trade for money as well as love (if the intermission video recently shown at Hilbert Circle Theatre is an accurate indication).

The robust sound of the amplified bassoon, with a pick-up that permits doubling at the octave of Ortwein's sinuous melodic line, was a joy to hear. It was an added pleasure that Fell's most extravagant, exciting solo was part of this rendition. The guitarist knows how to double down on an improvisational idea and let it go before it becomes boring. There was always a new idea ready to elbow its way in.

Olas was in fine form in "Lonnie's Lament," and tops among the high-level work of Hetrick and the multifaceted leader was how they cut loose in "Impressions," notably with  Ortwein's extroverted alto-sax playing.

With so much to be thankful for, the current state of Indianapolis jazz stands high on my list.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Dr. John puts his own stamp on the Louis Armstrong legacy, with help from trumpet star Nicholas Payton

Tribute shows tend to spin into orbits of their own when the generating star already has a significant, decades-old brand. Thus it
Dr. John channels the Creole musical mix of New Orleans.
was when Dr. John, the New Orleans pianist-singer steeped in that city's musical gumbo, came to the Palladium Saturday night with his "Spirit of Satch" show.

The selections leaned toward the sentimental and pop sides of Louis Armstrong's music.  That was signaled at the start with the performance of Bob Thiele's syrupy favorite, "What a Wonderful World," well-known through Satchmo's vocal warmth in the movie "Good Morning Vietnam."

As he presented himself here, Dr. John favors slow tempos that allow lots of room for his deep-delving piano flourishes between phrases as well as mellow, rough-hewn vocals. A surprise application of this preference came late in the show, with a somber version of "When the Saints Go Marching In." That served as a memento mori  to reinforce the significance of the skull on top of the star's piano.

The show featured a drawback of amplified shows in the Palladium. These I've accumulated anecdotally over the Carmel showplace's history, as the naturally good acoustics of the hall are sometimes overridden by the sound design. The first part of Dr. John's show was too loud, and there was here and there throughout a noisy jumble that overshot the goal of creating excitement. "Mack the Knife" totally sacrificed the Kurt Weill melody in favor of a monotonous churn; it was the concert's clearest failure.

A locally recruited ensemble of saxes and brass was sometimes brilliantly effective, sometimes ragged. Excellent leadership and spirited trombone playing from music director Sarah Morrow helped things to jell. Dr. John seems a largely self-involved performer, though he did credit his sidemen by name at the end of the show, and was guided haltingly (he uses a cane) along the front of the stage to shake hands with fans who came forward.

Otherwise, he stayed rooted to the keyboard, for the most part a grand piano that he attacked with soulful abandon.  His sheer command of vocal delivery highlighting a song's meaning was at its best in "Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams." Though unconventional, it might serve as an oblique aid to the polished Great American Songbook Academy participants who come to the Palladium each spring. His piano-playing was fully complementary to a memorable vocal.

Nicholas Payton was the show's guest star. As combative in his online statements about jazz as Wynton Marsalis was in his early years, Payton seemed oddly in the shadows in this setting, with just a few spectacular outbursts in the course of 90 minutes. He knows the heritage himself, being one of a long line of stellar New Orleans trumpeters. A few phrases in his solos even had the sheen and some of the ornamental tricks of the master, including such signature features as a straight-toned held note that adds a shimmering vibrato at the end.

The rhythm section that Dr. John travels with benefited immensely from the contributions of drummer Herlin Riley.  If you don't have the right underlying patterns for a New Orleans show, you don't have much, and Riley supplied both freshness and authenticity to a zestful mixed bag of a performance.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Fizz and ample fun add extra animation to Rossini's music in Indianapolis Opera's "Barber of Seville"

A stage director can hardly go wrong adding hijinks to complement the music that has made Gioacchino Rossini's "Barber of Seville" the foremost comic opera in the repertoire.

Figaro lays out a plan for the eager aristocrat prepared to pay him well, Almaviva.
Accordingly, there is no let-up in the flourishes and frolic stage director John Truitt has brought to the Indianapolis Opera production that will run through Sunday at the Tarkington in Carmel. Fortunately, the production also enjoys good musical preparation, guided by Matthew Kraemer, conducting the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra, of which he is music director. Apart from some lack of precision in rapid ensembles and a few "patter" solos, coordination between stage and pit was shipshape.

Spark plug of the comic intrigue that powers "The Barber of Seville" is the title character, Figaro, who makes himself available for a price to the lovesick nobleman Almaviva. The role was sung by Michael Kelly, who was ceaselessly expressive and energetic as well as in command of the kind of robust high baritone that works best in the opera. He helped buoy up Ben Robinson as Count Almaviva in the early scenes. (Kelly shares a name with one of opera history's most notable singers, an Irish tenor who was a friend of Mozart.)

A capable actor, Robinson did not seem quite vocally comfortable at first. I first noticed a warm, flowing sound when he came on in the first of Figaro's schemes as a drunken soldier. From then on, Robinson seemed at home in the role, aptly amusing also as the fake substitute music teacher, Figaro's second ruse to put the lovers in proximity.

But that first appearance had to compete with the nonsense of Jacob Pence's Fiorello (the count's servant) conducting the accompaniment of Almaviva's serenade to his confined lady love, Rosina. There is nothing wrong with underlining the story's silliness, which Rossini's music supports at nearly every turn. But a fully instrumented men's chorus, miming the accompaniment in response to Fiorello's florid gestures, felt over-the-top.  It was hard to focus on the imperishable "Ecco ridente," Almaviva's hopeful address to the nubile ward of Doctor Bartolo, who intends to make her his bride.

Truitt's way of moving characters about the stage was imaginative and matched the score's liveliness. For the first-act finale,
"Fredda ed immobile," the full ensemble, including the guards who have come to arrest Almaviva before he identifies himself as a Spanish grandee, are truly "frozen and immobile." This was a good way to stage a concluding number that takes up substantial room and literally halts the action. Only Figaro gets to move around and manipulate the tableau — true to his character as well when the residents of the Seville he knows so well are in their normal "thawed" condition.

Other famous showpieces come up to the edge of looking more confusing than they should. Don Basilio, the music teacher
A fine ensemble puts the cap on the intricate romantic comedy of "The Barber of Seville."
who suggests to Bartolo a campaign of slander against the Count, was solidly portrayed by basso Raphael Porto. His aria "La calunnia" indicates the progress of a rumor from the merest whisper to a virtual thunderstorm.

With Betsy Cooprider-Bernstein's lighting design including bursts in and around the set, there is an attempt to underline what Basilio is singing about with a literalism that doesn't quite work. (The real thunderstorm that occurs near the end of the show also needed some suggestion, however slight, of actual rain.) Add to that Basilio's knocking about the narcoleptic servant Ambrogio (Tyler Ostrander, in a nonsinging, yawning role) in imitation of slander's career, and you have a scene almost realized more through what you see than what you hear.

The hard-working cast carried through the infectious cheeriness of Truitt's concept. Tony Dillon's Bartolo in particular shone among his colleagues. His portrayal Friday night had the bustling self-importance of a guardian whose romantic designs are headed for certain defeat, but Bartolo never gives up. The role requires constant all-out investment in the goal the doctor has long had in view; he must make the impression that countering the amorous Count is the most important thing he has ever done. That's what Dillon accomplished.

Deborah Domanski's Rosina conveyed her character's restiveness under Bartolo's watchful eye and her openness to cooperating with any intrigue necessary to get her into the arms of the suitor she at first knows only as Lindoro. Her introductory aria, "Una voce poco fa," took on more prominence in this show than usual, as it introduced the show's opening interior scene after a long break to effect a set change. The second part of the aria made clear Rosina's reasonableness and docility, but only when she isn't crossed. Domanski served notice vividly that this was the Rosina her guardian had better be prepared to deal with. The other female role, the servant Berta (at first just a buffoonish sneezer), was neatly handled by Megan Moore in an irrelevant but catchy second-act aria about the minefields of love.

"The  Barber of Seville" works all the fun up to a foamy lather, but happily centers itself on the musical excellence that keeps the 24-year-old Rossini's creation alive.

[Photos by Denis Ryan Kelly Jr.]

Friday, November 18, 2016

Jazz Legacy Showcase puts David Baker's name on its annual award to an outstanding Indiana teacher

Lida Baker accepts award on behalf of Janis Stokhouse from Gene Markiewicz.
In accepting an award newly named for her late husband on behalf of Janis Stockhouse of Bloomington North High School, Lida Baker noted that of all the distinctions David Baker accumulated during his long musical career, being a teacher was uppermost.

"Quincy Jones never stopped calling, trying to get him to come out to Hollywood and work with him.," she told the Jazz Legacy Showcase annual dinner and awards ceremony Thursday evening at Indiana Landmarks Center. "But he liked teaching best of all the things he did." And the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University remained his home base until the end.

David Baker died last March at age 84. The Indianapolis native started IU's jazz studies department and ran it for several decades, becoming one of the most eminent jazz educators in the nation, while continuing to compose music in both jazz and classical genres.

The Indianapolis Jazz Foundation and Indy Jazz Fest, now joining forces, decided to put David Baker's name on its 2016 Jazz Educator of the Year Award, which Lida Baker accepted from the IJF's education director, Gene Markiewicz.
Scholarship winners Lamont Webb (from left) Peter Schultz, and Gregory Pryor.

Musical entertainment was provided by Jazz Futures, a student group comprising secondary-school musicians directed by Rob Dixon and Bruce McConnell. The septet played a couple of songs, with Dixon sitting in on alto saxophone.

Also performing at the beginning and end of the event was the Indianapolis Jazz Collective band, consisting in this instance of Dixon, pianist Steve Allee, bassist Nick Tucker, and drummer Kenny Phelps.

Three IJF scholarships were awarded to college musicians nominated by faculty at their respective institutions. The winners, each of whom received $1,000 toward their musical studies, performed with Indianapolis Jazz Collective members for the audience. They are bassist Gregory Pryor, Butler University; alto saxophonist Lamont Webb, Ball State University, and pianist Peter Schultz, Purdue University. They distinguished themselves in, respectively,  Brooks Bowman's "East of the Sun," Wayne Shorter's "Juju," and Hoagy Carmichael's "Skylark."

[Photos by Phil Cramer]

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Indianapolis Symphony's music director makes his last podium appearance here until the New Year

After a tumultuous week in the larger world, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra set a pacific seal upon its 2016 classical offerings under the music director's baton with a one-off concert featuring Polish composers in the first half, an international modern masterpiece in the second.
Jan Lisiecki played Chopin's E minor concerto and banished my agitation.

Krzysztof Urbanski conducted Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra after intermission. It may be one of the few symphonic works in the post-World War II repertoire to have earned a permanent place in the canon. Strictly speaking, it is a product of that global catastrophe, but its reputation has been made in the past 70 years, when new compositions tend to come and go.

Resourceful in its use of orchestral resources, and a largely cheerful summing-up of the composer's piquant style, the Concerto for Orchestra found a provocative interpreter in Urbanski. Untypically using the score, Urbanski had arranged the orchestra slightly differently, with the brass extended across the back of the stage just in front of the double basses.

This seemed to have the effect of distributing the music's many solo and solo-group passages to best advantage. The opening commanded the attention with its hushed sonorities, but everything that was suggested in those few measures soon burst into full flower. The intricacies were managed with cool competence.

That quality was extended in the second movement, which I've always known under the title Giuoco delle coppie (Game of Pairs). The program book had something slightly different, and the performance followed suit insofar as the spirit of play was muted. Though well played, this "game" settled into a deliberate pace as various instrument pairings were displayed under the snare drum's guidance. The wit was academically dry, and one was compelled to admire the movement's etude-like sobriety.

The Elegy that followed had the deep-delving expressive heft that seems to fit Urbanski's emotional profile. He is not incapable of finding opportunities for humor, however. The "interruption" in the fourth-movement, Interrupted Serenade, was raucous and invigorating — in perfect contrast to the dreamy serenade music.

The finale struck me in this performance more than others I remember as falling into the symphonic tradition established by Beethoven: putting most of the weight and ingenuity of a multi-movement piece toward the end. The many soloistic episodes were brought out nicely, well-balanced and illustrative of the innovation the composer had in mind in writing the first-ever concerto for modern orchestra. The fugue was robust, the blazes of fiery color well-tended, and the gallimaufry of tempos and meters well-stirred.

Before intermission, I heard only the lengthier of the two Polish works programmed by the Polish maestro.  I had been carried away by participation in the "resist Trump" rally at the Statehouse and lost track of the time. Normally, I have no trouble privileging art over politics, but these are not normal times. Still, I'm embarrassed by the unprecedented lateness of my arrival at Hilbert Circle Theatre. I had looked forward to hearing the Urbanski/ISO "Musique funebre" of Witold Lutoslawski, which I know only from a BBC Philharmonic recording conducted by Yan Pascal Tortelier.

I was in my seat and mentally readjusted (for the most part) for Jan Lisiecki's solo appearance in Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor. The young Canadian pianist flubbed the end of his first run up the keyboard. But that mishap turned out to be inconsequential, considering the accuracy and depth of commitment evident in the rest of what he played, including the Chopin nocturne he offered as an encore.

Lisiecki has a big, well-defined sound, seemingly using less pedal than the norm, in vigorous passages. But nothing sounded parched, and the soft playing, particularly in the slow movement, was exquisite. He relishes tonal variety, and he found things in the score that allowed him, with Urbanski and the orchestra in full concord, to be amusing and lively in the finale's rondo theme and freshly high-spirited in the movement's episodes. Recalling the short-lived Romanian pianist Dinu Lipatti, a critic once wrote: "He played Chopin with intimacy, boldness and respect at the same time." I can't encapsulate Lisiecki's performance Saturday night any better than that. Considering how unsettled my mind was when I took my seat, what the ISO's guest  accomplished, seconded by the orchestra, was pure balm to the spirit..

Saturday, November 12, 2016

'Madama Butterfly' at Clowes: Indiana University brings a typically well-prepared and -executed opera production to Indianapolis

Cio-Cio-San and her entourage enter the home her fiance Pinkerton has acquired for her far above Nagasaki.
An interrupted rote gesture of the heroine's adopted faith, then sobbing.

That tiny moment, at the beginning of the second act in Indiana University's "Madama Butterfly," represents the keen attention to detail of the production that moved into Clowes Hall for a two-night stand Friday.

For three years, Cio-Cio-San, the title character, has waited — amid expressions of confidence masking growing despair — for the return of her husband, an American naval officer whose founding-father name, Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, is the most solid thing about him. Having taken his marriage to the former geisha lightly, he has gone back to the USA and married the "real American wife" he had promised himself in the first act. His Japanese wife is left to wait and wonder, to heal from banishment by her people, resisting a rich suitor while holding on to an increasingly desperate hope.

Cio-Cio-San kneels before an iconic portrait representing her adopted religion and crosses herself, breaking off as she breaks down. It's a microcosm of Butterfly's tragedy: Having burned the bridges of her heritage, she has thrown all her prospects for happiness upon an alien culture represented by a man she hardly knows, who is casual and ignorant about hers.

It's just one of many touches of dramatic insight brought to the production by stage director Lesley Koenig. They tend to work to deepen the audience's insight into plot and character. And they always serve the music as well.  To get right to the part of "Madama Butterfly" everyone knows: "Un bel di," the abandoned wife's fantasy of Pinkerton's return to Nagasaki, which in her mind also means a return to the domestic bliss they once briefly shared, is staged imaginatively.

Rather than a plant-your-feet-and-sing soprano showcase, this production has Cio-Cio-San starting with hands-on reassurance toward her faithful servant, Suzuki, that the reunion will come. As she elaborates on her fantasy, the music becomes softer. So, this Cio-Cio-San moves upstage, singing to Suzuki's back, inviting her to visualize Pinkerton's return for herself. Then, for the aria's peroration, Butterfly moves forward toward Suzuki as the two women bond over the certainty of Madam Pinkerton (as she insists on being called).

As seen Friday at Clowes Hall, the role of Butterfly had consistent luster in Mathilda Edge's performance. As the heroine's fate darkens in the third act, the luster also shone from Edge's low register. She steadily represented the indomitable courage of one of Puccini's most beloved heroines. Cio-Cio-San's trust is inviolable, and Puccini and his librettists wanted it to be so much more than persistent naivete. The result is to make Butterfly the most courageous of Puccini's victimized women, in her own way outdoing even the avenging Tosca. And that's how she was played in this performance.

As for Pinkerton, Koenig is unsparing in bringing out his coarseness. The lieutenant's entrance includes an unidiomatic florid  bow that approaches mockery. Handed cups of sake by the officious Goro, the marriage broker, he and the American consul Sharpless toss the contents on the ground. Pinkerton immediately asks Sharpless if he'd like whiskey, then produces a bottle and one glass. Pinkerton drinks his right from the bottle.

The soaring vocal command that Trey Smagur brought to the role heightened the impression of an uncouth American motivated solely by adventure. Yet Smagur, a giant of a tenor in more than the vocal department, also betrayed Pinkerton's susceptibility to Cio-Cio-San's charms. The cultural clash represented by this liaison was expertly staged. The first-act love duet that includes some of the score's most glorious music had striking moments of emphasizing the couple's incompatibility. We weren't invited to take this in as another one of those glittering hug-and-bellow numbers so abundant in romantic opera.

Smagur was harder put to be credible in the last act, but then all Pinkertons are, I think. His remorse is sincere, and Puccini set it to some glorious music. But of necessity it has to be brief, and the first-act Pinkerton creates such an indelible impression that, by the finale, we can't help thinking: "Yeah, too little, too late, buddy." It's an acting challenge, and Smagur seemed comfortable with it only as the curtain started to descend, collapsing grief-stricken near his distracted toddler son as the orchestra thunders.

In a supporting role, Eric Smedsrud had to work against the physical discrepancy between him and Smagur to establish Sharpless as a moral exemplar. The story makes him ineffectual in the end, and this production also stacks the deck against him by giving the first-act Pinkerton a silent sailor companion to reinforce his jingoism subtly. Another disadvantage of his portrayal was an occasionally veiled tone that made him hard to hear. Liz Culpepper was this cast's stalwart, but aptly skeptical, Suzuki, and Bradley Bickhardt brightly conveyed the piercing, busy-body perseverance of Goro.

The IU Orchestra was reliably multifaceted in the pit, with the performance conducted by Arthur Fagen. Tempos were flexible and flawlessly matched to the stage action. The pace broadened when the action slowed for dramatic emphasis. It got lively for the kind of nagging effervescence Goro represented and for the blend of gossip, surprise and recrimination that makes up the chorus' duties, brightly carried out as trained by Walter Huff.

The look of the production underscored the drama. An arrangement of suspended structures over the main platform rose from miniature model houses, changing abstractly into lanterns. These lit up as hope rose in the Nagasaki household. Some of them move out of sight as the dream of domesticity collapses in the third act. 

Behind the semi-abstract playing area, frames supported huge sheets of fabric that resembled natural scenery at first, craggy  but colorful mountains rising above the city. At the start of the second act, Patrick Mero's lighting gave them a blank, glaring appearance, like wrinkled shrouds representing the impending death of Cio-Cio-San's hopes. As for the tragic denouement in the finale, the shapes became gray and icy, symbolizing the implacable hostility of a milieu that has stifled the heroine's viability to the vanishing point. They finally soften and shrink in reflected horror at her preordained answer to an unbearable reality.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Jerusalem String Quartet returns to EMS series to offer post-election balm

Celebrating 20 years in existence and nurturing a growing international reputation, the Jerusalem String Quartet returned to Ensemble Music Society's concert series Wednesday night.
The Jerusalem String Quartet played Beethoven, Prokofiev, and Haydn at Indiana History Center.

Its first appearance under EMS auspices 25 months ago drew from me nothing but unstinting kudos. The second visit struck me as less superlative, and that response has nothing to do with an accident in the last movement of Beethoven's Quartet in F, op. 59, No. 1 ("Razumovsky"). As the ensemble launched the finale, second violinist Sergei Bresler's bow broke; he dashed backstage, returning a few minutes later with a replacement and completing the concert with his colleagues.

"Usually, we have strings break," quipped violist Ori Kam while Bresler was offstage. "Bows — not every day." It was a deft understatement about a rare mishap from which the quartet recovered flawlessly in polishing off the first Razumovsky (named, along with its two op. 59 companions, for a patron of the composer's).

The Jerusalem's internal rapport was most evident in the lovely Adagio molto e mesto second movement. The music had a free-flowing feel that suited the fine melody, particularly when cellist Kyril Zlotnikov handled it. The suggestion of ad-lib spontaneity was refreshing. Earlier, there had been moments flecked with slightly off-pitch notes, and I couldn't always be sure who was responsible.

But delights abounded in the performance. Counterpoint in the first movement's development was nicely coordinated. The ending of the second movement (Allegretto vivace e sempre scherzando) — with its softly chattering sixteenth notes, giving way to a measure of pizzicato, then three measures of rhythmic bean bag downward before ending in a loud, assertive rush — can only be described as cute. Well, there are other words that could be used, but right here, I like "cute."

In the first half, the main disappointment was in choice of repertoire. I would never say a major composer must be represented by only his best work, but I nonetheless find Prokofiev's String Quartet No. 1 in B minor, op. 50, annoying.  A work created in association with the Russian composer's American sojourn, it reflects his ambivalence about which direction to follow musically and (perhaps) personally as well. Sometimes he seems to be writing as a wannabe Old Master, fully formed and of lofty perspective. Sometimes there is the saving grace of his temperamental flippancy. Always there is another advantage: intimacy with the sound and natural capabilities of the forces he is writing for.

I balk mainly at the finale, a slow movement placed last because the composer thought the most important things he had to say were there. I can't blame the JSQ, whose advocacy of the work seemed well-considered and sturdily carried off. But that last movement nearly put me to sleep Wednesday. Listening to it at home as preparation, I avoided nodding off, but was puzzled by the logy, stolid writing. The music is heavy and almost pretentious. Much better are the first two movements, though the middle one has off-putting eccentricities as well.

No such questions surround Haydn's Quartet in D major, op. 64, no. 5 (the "Lark"). As heard Wednesday evening at the Indiana History Center, the first movement was lightly jaunty, not overly sweet, which seems just the way to play it. A subtle weight was given to phrases in the slow movement that allowed it to seem more serious while still within the work's spirit. The minuet was dexterously shaped, and in the swift-running finale, the agility and brilliant tone of first violinist Alexander Pavlovsky were zestfully displayed.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

On a day of constantly turning outward, a look within: "How to Save Yourself"

The author as cowboy: April 1951, Lancaster, Pa.
How to Save Yourself

I keep meeting myself as a boy.
He’s doing and saying everything I remember him doing.
I think this is all he is now: what I remember.
But I’m wrong: there is something else.

At the end of each appearance, clumsy
Or adept depending on the event, he has started
To add something in a newer tone.
“Save me,” he says in a whisper.

He is not following the rules of memory.
But he is me, so I have a stake in his demand.
“How can I help?” I ask helplessly.
“Understand.” A whisper with a shout’s resonance.

I take it as a cue to offer retrospective advice.
Circumspection and foresight are what I recommend.
“Circumspection? Foresight? I’m five years old!”
Then: “I’m twelve years old.”  Then: “I’m seventeen years old.”

I’m at a loss. “Just understand,” he says.
I stop talking. I watch him talk and act some more,
Following the scripts of my memory to a T.
It can be painful. Finally I must speak to him.

“And now?” I ask hopefully. “And now?”
He begins to seem less trapped, freer within himself.
I am standing under him: I’ve attained the etymological sublime.
“It’s working!” he says in the voice of someone

 I can begin to love. It’s working.

On Election Eve, a new string quartet makes a splash worthy of a campaign rally

Michael Strauss, Zach DePue, Austin Hartman, Austin Huntington.
Everywhere you look, current events seem to have raised ordinary life to fever pitch. If you haven't noticed, good luck at being released from that persistent vegetative state you must be in.

The excitement carried over to a concert at the University of Indianapolis Monday night. The occasion was the debut of a new string quartet (announced from the stage of the Lilly Performance Hall in DeHaan Fine Arts Center as "the Indianapolis String Quartet" before the musicians took the stage, but a permanent name has yet to be chosen).

The highly charged political atmosphere may have an analogy in music's parallel universe. Any echo of that energy in the packed concert hall can be attributed to the professional stature of the new ensemble (Zachary DePue and Austin Hartman, violins; Michael Strauss, viola; Austin Huntington, cello) and how well it delivered on the eager anticipation of so many people, including the university that's sponsoring it.

Orli Shaham was attentive and nuanced in the Brahms Piano Quintet.
Focusing first on the concert's second half, I can't resist noticing aspects of Johannes Brahms' Quintet in F minor for Piano and Strings that strike chords in the political tumult climaxing today. For this masterwork, the "ISQ" was joined by Orli Shaham, a pianist as sensitive, insightful and collegially nimble as her violinist brother Gil, last weekend's Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra guest artist.

I hope the parallelism doesn't seem strained, but I'll home in on the opening movement of this masterpiece and consider how our political dilemmas relate to Brahms' secure but not impregnable status as one of the supreme masters of music. This Allegro non troppo is a superior example of Brahms' gift for organizing musical ideas to a fare-thee-well. Every detail serves the composer's overall plan. These musicians played the movement in full recognition of that fact. The structure is airtight; nothing is wasted.

At the same time, Brahms the man was massively repressed. He bore an excess of emotional baggage, which he subjected to exquisite control in his music. His work is an expression of an ideal not everyone accepts: the virtue of taming one's desires and putting them to work in well-crafted form. To me, this sheds light on a certain musician's Facebook post and commentary I read a few days back that included the proposition that Brahms is more fun to play than listen to.

Seen in political terms, Brahms endures because his music matches the hope that individuals and societies alike can put their passions in harness to well-considered craftsmanship. What moves the wagon forward then is something that both works practically and satisfies the emotions. There are no loose threads. Recast in today's political terms, Brahms promises to make music great again and insists we are stronger together. 

In "Brahms the Progressive," Arnold Schoenberg states the ideal like this: "A transition, a codetta, an elaboration, etc. should not be considered as a thing in its own end. It should not appear at all if it does not develop, modify, intensify, clarify, or throw light or color on the idea of the piece."

Brahms achieves this in many works, relying largely on his skills as the foremost post-Classical contrapuntalist and master of variation form. Both counterpoint and variation are aspects of music that have to be fully accountable in order to succeed. But Brahms' emphasis on such values, applied elaborately and consistently, drives some people crazy. They see a composer who presents massive blank walls, solid and demanding to be admired. And they balk.

Mighty critics as captious as George Bernard Shaw and B.H. Haggin have disdained
Johannes Brahms: Political parallels?
him. The French traditionally have a problem with Brahms. Though he may not have been thinking specifically of Brahms, Claude Debussy made a quip about the tradition the German worked in to the effect that "oh, here comes the development: I can go out for a smoke." 

In Brahms, no detail is left stranded. Everything is developed. No wonder Condoleezza Rice, a formerly well-placed technocrat and competent musician, loves Brahms above all other composers. George W. Bush's secretary of state has played the Brahms Piano Quintet with professionals for an audience including Queen Elizabeth. The New York Times once quoted a violinist colleague of hers calling it "Condi's piece."

On Election Eve, the UIndy audience seemed ready to acquiesce to its message that contentious forces can be reconciled through mastery of structure. The "ISQ" and Shaham fashioned a reading of great tenderness and variety, serious as all get-out when it needed to be, exuberantly driven when appropriate, and fully responsive to that summit of Brahmsiness, the Allegro non troppo. If only we could work together like these five people on such a project, many listeners were perhaps musing, just think what we could achieve.

Before I let go of politics, mention must be made of the quartet's encore. Violist Strauss introduced the slow movement of Dvorak's F-major quartet ("American"), op. 96, with a reference to the election, placing its composer as representing both "indigenous and non-indigenous" aspects of the country he was visiting when he wrote it. 

The new UIndy string quartet bears down Monday night at DeHaan.
Nicknames are a vexed matter in music; most did not come from the composer. Dvorak's "American" is a case in point, and commentators have pointed out tuneful similarities between the music of black Americans and white Bohemians. That throws into question the former influence that's sentimentally attached to the work, particularly the melody so piercingly rendered near the movement's end by cellist Huntington. But I was reminded of another political and social burden in the history of this "American" work, and of America itself: Do you know what its nickname used to be, conveyed so recently as in the 1954 Grove Dictionary of Music? The "Nigger" Quartet. Maybe an Englishman supplied it. But we Yanks are not off the hook on racial matters, are we?

Now we can put politics entirely aside. The rest of the program consisted of Alberto Ginastera's bracing, unquestionably Argentinian String Quartet No. 1, op. 20, and Felix Mendelssohn's last chamber-music work, the String Quartet No. 6 in F minor, op. 20. The intensity and pathos in which the latter is steeped, uncharacteristic of the facile genius of its composer, was nicely represented by the new ensemble. Transitions between sadly tender and agitated episodes in the first movement displayed the elan of a much more experienced quartet. Dynamics were well-coordinated throughout the spectrum in the third movement, especially. 

Ginastera's 1948 work had the flavor of his homeland's pampas, particularly in the rhythmic profile of the first two movements, reminiscent of the finale of "Variaciones concertantes." They are immensely contrasted, however, by the lightening of texture in the second movement, Vivacissimo, which was played with delicate and precise coloring. The eerie stasis and shifting light and shadow of the third movement betrayed the positive influence of Bela Bartok's "night music."
Again, the account had the maturity of a more seasoned ensemble.

In sum, the "ISQ" ought to have a great future. There was evident unanimity of interpretive ideas Monday night. What seems to be the main thing it needs to develop is better balance when there's lots of independence in the four parts, especially in the middle of the dynamic range. Its soft playing was thoroughly blended, and the general unity of chordal attack and release was gratifying. The men had clearly brought their "A" game to a challenging program. And the audience exulted in it.

[Photos by D. Todd Moore]

Monday, November 7, 2016

Director wants 'Madama Butterfly' to be about the story and the music — not her

Lesley Koenig comes to Indiana University as an opera director with 30 years of experience and a cross-cultural appreciation of the difficulties of staging "Madama Butterfly" in 2016.

The production, which opened last weekend at the Musical Arts Center on the Bloomington campus, travels to Indianapolis this week for two nights at Clowes Hall.

Koenig, now general director of Weston Playhouse in Vermont, began her career as a teenager working for the San Francisco Opera. By the age of 23, she began decades of association with the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where her first job was directing "Salome" with Grace Bumbry.

"Madama Butterfly" tells the story of the misguided love affair and marriage between an American naval lieutenant and  Cio-Cio-San, a Japanese geisha, in the early 20th century. It's one of the Puccini "Big Three" — worldwide favorites by the Italian composer (1854-1928), the other two being "La Boheme" and "Tosca." It was last presented in Indianapolis several years ago by Indianapolis Opera before that company entered a hiatus leading to its reconstitution last year.

Koenig has never worked on "Butterfly" before. She especially looks forward to having her work staged in two different halls, both using the same casts as in Bloomington (including double-casting in the major roles). She takes a viewpoint that goes against the grain of the past several decades, in which the concept of "director's opera" has exercised a controversial hold on opera production.

I offered the possibility that "Butterfly" is director-proof in that its story is quite firmly rooted in its time and place. 

Lesley Koenig, "Madama Butterfly" director, likes finding the truth in the story and the music.
"People do change it," Koenig replied, quickly indicating that's not her choice. "My belief is that you get an opera the way it is. You're given a fabulous score and all these words. Who am I to change that?

"I want you to walk away saying that you have seen 'Madama Butterfly," Koenig said simply and definitively.

Still, her work with the production team puts her special stamp on the show. The set is not traditional; detail is sparser. The idea of a zen garden, with its flowing lines and angles and abstractness, is part of the look.

Costuming helps with characterization. "In most productions, Pinkerton (the naval lieutenant) walks on in a crisp white uniform," Koenig said, adding that her experience in the Far East acquaints her with the fact that Westerners often feel ill at ease in the climate. "I wanted all the Americans not to look pristine. Everyone is a little winded," not just Sharpless, the U.S. consul, who admits to it.

The wilted look suits Pinkerton's character as well, Koenig added. "He's not a lovely man. He's a bit of a cad. What he's saying right from the start is really quite brutal. At the end, he feels bad about what happens, but he's not a gentleman."

Cultural clash has been so much in the news lately, but the director focuses on the story and the characters. Productions searching for "relevance" are not her cup of tea. "It's about the story and not about me," Koenig said. "And it's not about the present day. With so many directors, it's all about them, and that does nothing to enhance the piece."

True, she says, there's a hierarchy about gender in Japan that's clear down to the present day. "I didn't play that up here at all. They look and they behave the way they should behave."

Any stamp Koenig puts on a production is intended to reveal what is already there in the story, the characters and their circumstances. She has made some problems for herself, as she puts it, in stipulating only one entrance to the room that the unit set displays. This is to express the confined nature of Cio-Cio-San's existence as an abandoned wife, disgraced kin in her own culture, waiting for a husband she had every reason to believe would be hers forever.

"I wanted a sense of it being its own defining space," Koenig said. "It's the opposite of freedom. Things are preordained. People just can't be coming in from the side. They have to enter the space that belongs only to her."

Sunday, November 6, 2016

'Cabaret' extends its sardonic welcome in ATI production

One advantage of seeing lots of plays new to me is that it checks the temptation to sift among plays I know and come up with ideal casts in my mind from among actors whose work I admire.

Apart from concocting such a cast for Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra" several years ago for an Indiana Repertory Theatre production of my dreams, I've resisted going into the fantasy-football mode — it feels somehow arrogant and manipulative, even though no one is harmed by the game.

On the other hand, looking at the announced cast for a play I know, it's exciting to discover an actor has been cast who seems perfect for a role. Thus I was sure Actors Theatre of Indiana's production of "Cabaret" was an immediate must-see because the Emcee would be Ben Asaykwee. A fantasy I hadn't thought of would meet reality. It turned out the real thing surpassed the fantasy.

This was ATI's second performance Saturday night in the Studio Theater of Carmel's Center for the Performing Arts. Of course, it was crucial that this Emcee be significantly removed from memories of Joel Grey in the movie. The challenge is how much room to maneuver there can be within a role that is largely caricature or, at best, symbolic of the Nazi threat to the late Weimar Republic circa 1930. The role can't be easy, but it seems it might feel confining.

Directed by Billy Kimmel, Asaykwee and the cast met that challenge handsomely. I emphasize the cast at this point because a striking, vivid Emcee can't really carry "Cabaret," even with an outstanding, energetic Sally Bowles, which this production has in ATI co-founder Cynthia Collins. What works is an Emcee who's striking and mesmerizing on his own, but also helps ground the show's context.

That context, which is well-supported throughout the production, was also an achievement of Asaykwee's performance Saturday night. His sinuous athleticism, Eddie Cantor "banjo eyes," gestural imagination, a singing and speaking voice with a virtuoso range of expression — all these qualities and more were given focus and import by this production's sights and sounds. The small band, behind slidable screens, serves both as Kit Kat Klub house band and nearby accompaniment to songs set in other places. Coordination with singers and dancers, by music director John D. Phillips, was nearly flawless.

One of the few still moments in the raunchy trio, "Two Ladies," with the Emcee in the middle.
In all events, escape from the iconic Grey performance, which was more elfin and a little less sardonic than Asaykwee's, was complete. Furthermore, I didn't have to worry about a Sally Bowles who would be other than Liza Minnelli in the movie.

Attractive as her performance was on its own terms, Minnelli's seemed to draw its depth from the narrow channel of kookiness that she also mastered in "The Sterile Cuckoo." For all her star quality, this actress-singer (a favorite of CPA artistic director Michael Feinstein) seems like a set of Russian nesting dolls: Inside the outer Liza is nestled a succession of progressively smaller Lizas.

Cliff and Sally consider Ernst's proposal of a way for Cliff to earn money.
Cynthia Collins, by way of contrast, displayed a depth that didn't rely on multiple ways of being kooky, including the pathetic. Sally's liveliness and insouciance, her deep-rooted amorality, bumped up convincingly against the social and political threat to her cozy world of low entertainment and casual liaisons. These were brought home to her convincingly by Eric J. Olson as Cliff Bradshaw, the struggling American novelist who shifts from casual lover to would-be rescuer. There were genuine sparks in the Sally-Cliff relationship in this performance, and that connection brings with it the larger menace that drives the plot home on a personal level.

Carol Worcel's choreography was crisply executed, with humor complementing Fred Ebb's lyrics, in back-to-back songs (with always idiomatic melodies by John Kander) for Sally Bowles and the Kit Kat girls: "Don't Tell Mama" and "Mein Herr."  With the Emcee interacting with the same saucy ladies, "Money" was one of the most memorable songs, and emblematic of the Brechtian cynicism the show apes quite well.

Actors in supporting roles gave additional substance to a story so searing that it never gets buried by spectacular song and dance. There's Patrick Vaughn as the Nazi agent Ernst Ludwig, convinced of his cause and shrewd in manipulating the people who can be useful to him; and Judy Fitzgerald as the woman of easy virtue who is among Fraulein Schneider's tenants in the building where Cliff has found lodgings for himself, later to include Sally.

The simpatico landlady is as symbolic of what ordinary Germans had to put up with in the first few decades of the last century as the Emcee is in his practice of shrugging it all off. She was warmly played by Debra Babich, with Darrin Murrell as her ardent fiance Herr Schultz. Their duet "Married" offered praise as poignant of the domestic stability they will never find as the heart-tugging soliloquy "Maybe This Time" expressed Sally's lack of preparation for such a life.

In the world of "Cabaret," the prospect of lasting peace is far out of reach for everyone. Some know it, some merely suspect it, and some will have it visited starkly upon their minds and bodies.

[Photos by Kip Shawger]

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Gil Shaham undertakes a concerto binge with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra

Fairly bursting with collegiality and indications of how glad he was to be there, Gil Shaham conducted and played his violin Friday in the first full program of his weekend's visit to the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.

Gil Shaham: Master of this weekend's ISO concerto fest
It was also important, of course, for the American violinist, who spent his formative years in Israel, to deliver the musical goods. That was amply evident at the Hilbert Circle Theatre in a program of Bach and Beethoven, in which he shared the soloist spotlight with Jennifer Christen, the ISO's principal oboist.

His approach to the program's most substantial work, Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D major, seemed understated at the outset. It was difficult to know what to make of such an inward-looking presentation of the solo part. Yet the long first movement unfolded with a keen sense of drama. Particularly at a suspenseful point near the end, against repeated trumpet notes, Shaham, with the orchestra's support, pumped the bellows and fanned the music's steady flame into a blaze.

Jennifer Christen: Her being featured in the encore was a special treat.
The Larghetto movement also brimmed with elements of surprise. Its heart-stopping lyricism had notes of elfin charm in Shaham's performance.  The hold that bridges the second movement and the finale was extended, and made portentous, with the insertion of the defining timpani pattern by principal Jack Brennan. This gave extra flavor to the launch of the Rondo: Allegro. Shaham allowed himself some deft ornamentation in repeats of the rondo theme. Also fresh and effective was the slowing of tempo near the very end, followed by an exuberant acceleration up to the double bar.

Before intermission, Shaham's insight into the material at hand was stunning as well. He bounded onstage to open the concert with Bach's Violin Concerto No. 2 in E major, BWV 1042. The string orchestra accompanied with significant emphasis on brief solo passages complementing the main solo, which Shaham played with sparkle and imaginative thrust. The dignified second movement was given just the right weight, with pomp infusing the second theme. Brief dialogues with principal cellist Austin Huntington approached an ideal of low-key partnership.

The small, fit ensemble, with Sylvia Patterson Scott at the harpsichord, remained in place for the Concerto in C minor for oboe, violin and orchestra. Interaction by the soloists in the first movement was neat and animated. Christen's oboe led the way sweetly in the Adagio; the finale — very Vivaldian in its plateaus and parade of sequences — was delightful in all respects.

How appropriate it was for Shaham to choose as an encore after the Beethoven concerto the slow movement of the oboe-violin concerto, bringing Christen back to the stage. This time, though I may have been feeling the exhilarating effect of the whole concert, her playing sounded even freer, fuller, more buoyant and well put together than before. It was the best kind of encore experience, banishing every thought of the national political jolt that will intervene before the ISO's next classical program on Nov. 12 — after which the Classical Series takes a two-month break.