Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The cymbal crash at the end: A meditation on last lines in poetry (in memoriam Richard Wilbur)

There is no good ending admits fade-out.
         —Geoffrey Hill, "Improvisations for Jimi Hendrix" 

Richard Wilbur: The image of his poems' cymbal-crash endings stayed with me.
Richard Wilbur died over the weekend, shortly before my greatly anticipated 50th-anniversary class reunion at Kalamazoo College next weekend. The coincidence has significant force for me, because of a striking image suggested to me by a classmate more than a half-century ago.

When I first encountered Wilbur's work, I was a sophomore English major at K College. Something that she said about Wilbur's poetry — the best of which was fresh and modern in 1964 — has stayed with me. "I like the way his poems end with sort of a cymbal crash," she said.

I don't remember which Wilbur poems she cited, but I'm sure we had some of the same ones in mind.  "Advice to a Prophet," for example, with its formal stanzas warning a generic prophet against an exclusively human emphasis in the doomsday scenarios that were in the air then as now:

Ask us, ask us whether with the worldless rose
Our hearts shall fail us; come demanding
Whether there shall be lofty or long standing
When the bronze annals of the oak-tree close.


Or "Still, Citizen Sparrow," painting at first a contrast between the common life of the sparrow and the predatory one of the vulture, before moving to Noah's lofty perspective at the Ark's helm above the flood:

...Try rather to feel
How high and weary it was, on the waters where

He rocked his only world, and everyone's.
Forgive the hero, you who would have died
Gladly with all you knew; he rode that tide
To Ararat; all men are Noah's sons.


Or what the soul says to the waking body in contemplation of clean laundry on clotheslines in "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World":

Let there be clean linen for the backs of thieves;
Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone,
And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating
Of dark habits,
                       keeping their difficult balance.


The cymbal-crash resonance of poetic endings is no easy test of a poem's worth, however. And its perception by a reader may be too seductive. As a teen-ager, I probably overestimated two overanthologized poems because of how they ended, conclusions that noisily turned the key in the locks of two brief lyrics: E.E. Cummings' "Buffalo Bill's" and E.A. Robinson's "Richard Cory." The legendary showman and sharpshooter in Cummings' poem has passed on, so that the poet asks: ...and what I want to know is / how do you like your blueeyed boy / Mister Death" and Robinson's debonair envied townsman who "one calm summer night / Went home and put a bullet through his head." I loved the airtight conclusiveness of those lyrics.

When we are first fired up by poetry, we may resist scrutinizing such definitive endings as gimmickry.  Later on, we assemble a repertoire of personal cymbal-crashes in last lines that seem better earned. William Butler Yeats was a master of them; no one could elude fade-outs better, as we know from the oft-quoted lines ending "The Second Coming," ":Prayer for My Daughter," and "Sailing to Byzantium."

When a poet uses a refrain, he potentially dissipates cymbal-crash energy across the whole poem. That threatens the specialness of the final iteration.Yeats finds a way of making the last time special in "John Kinsella's Lament for Mrs. Mary Moore," because he contrasts the joys of the fallen world with prelapsarian grace in Eden, coming out in favor of the former. The last four lines:  "No quarrels over ha'pence there / They pluck the trees for bread. / What shall I do for pretty girls / Now my old bawd is dead?"


In older poetry, making a big deal over the last line fitted into the smoother rhetoric the Romantics developed. Today you don't get the kind of predawn view of any metropolis available to William Wordsworth in 1802. After sustained exaltation, the sonnet "Composed upon Westminster Bridge" ends, "And all that mighty heart is lying still!"  The poem has already been stuffed with wonder at the quiet city, but the last line tops everything. It does so  partly though its sound: All monosyllables except for two words with the open assonance of "mighty" and "lying."

Since the clash of cymbals is sound, sound of lines with such clashes is not irrelevant. Another such is the close of Tennyson's "Ulysses."  Encouraging himself and his crew to undertake a final voyage, Ulysses ends his pep talk with "...that which we are, we are, — / One equal temper of heroic hearts, / Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will / To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."

You can't resist that — you're ready to sail!

Nothing but monosyllables in the last two lines, capped by those thundering infinitives. You can almost hear a cymbal crash on each verb, not merely a strong accent.

As you come to admire last lines, you realize that a lyric poet is always fearful of fadeout, in a career as well as in a poem. This has resulted in great poems with cymbal crashes that feel a bit like tags. There is didacticism in the ending of Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn" and Robert Frost's "Directive," two extravagantly admired examples of those poets' mastery. The detail in each is exquisite, but we can be made uneasy by the "directives" ending each of them, not just Frost's: "Drink and be whole again beyond confusion," but also Keats' "Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

Only each poet's skill in building toward them seems to justify such sententious endings. You can feel other poets gauging their endings carefully, aware of tying a fancy bow on their gift. The famous conclusion of Wallace Stevens' "Sunday Morning" is a patterned cymbal crash in diminuendo. He could be more direct about it elsewhere, but indirection was his metier, and the gaudiness of his imagery seems designed not to put too much weight on a poem's conclusion: A notable exception is "Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock," where muted,  glum color imagery gives way at the end to

Only, here and there, an old sailor,
Drunk and asleep in his boots,
Catches tigers
In red weather.

Cymbal crash! An also in the bleak lyric "The Snow Man." It's a cold cymbal crash, and it can make us uneasy about the poem as well as about Stevens' uncustomary explicitness. Evoking the feeling of a January wind near woods "That is blowing in the same bare place / For the listener, who listens in the snow, / And, nothing himself, beholds / Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is."  A cymbal crash of nothingness.

Always something of a sport,  Stevens knew the hazard of majestic cymbals at the end; stuttering inconclusively, he ends "The Man on the Dump" with this: "Where was it one first heard of the truth? The the."

John Ashbery (1927-2017)
Ashbery, the other major American poet besides Wilbur who died in 2017, takes his peripatetic view over surprising terrain and tends not to follow the Stevens of "The Man on the Dump." Yet he dials down wavering intensity as he wraps up a loose-limbed lyric, ending can end with a finger snap or flick of the wrist in preference to  cymbal crash. But I can think of a couple that resonate for me with the echo of shimmering discs in the percussion section.. "The Gazing Grain" rises a little at the end, especially when the plainness of the last line is contrasted with the strikingly odd next-to-last one:

...We come back to ourselves
Through the rubbish of cloud and tree-spattered pavement.
These days stand like vapor under the trees.

Not a Wilburian cymbal crash, but still....   Here's an odder one, and I can't account for in its effect on me. A distant castle, sprung up out of nowhere like so many things in Ashbery poems, "...weighs its shadow ever heavier on the mirroring / Surface of the river, surrounding the little boat with three figures in it." I have no idea why I find the final image so moving; maybe it's because humanity is somewhat intrusive and threatening throughout much of  "Voyage in the Blue," and at the end is comfortingly given a distant perspective.

Geoffrey Hill (1932-2016)
Finding a distant perspective from which to assess reality can lead even so expert a poet as Wilbur astray, however. In "The Death of a Toad," there is an ordinary suburban accident:  a lawnmower has caught a toad in the grass, now at lawn's edge with a leg fatally torn. The melodious final stanza, beautifully crafted, imagines the toad calling up a twilight vision of "lost Amphibia's emperies" — a descent into bathos unusual in Wilbur. As the poet-critic Randall Jarrell, whose admiration for Wilbur is evident in the New York Times obituary, groused: "So it was only, after all, an excuse for some poetry."

It's also a cymbal crash, but perhaps Jarrell's complaint reflects the fact that one reader's splash of triumphant percussion may be another's banality indicating that too much of a poem's inspiration depends on the conclusion it's moving toward. This is part and parcel of lyric poetry's anxiety about death. A clear vision may be welcome, but how does it stand beside cloudier poetic visions? My epigraph for this essay comes from the response of one relatively long-lived artist to a short-lived one. "Improvisations for Jimi Hendrix," which uses as its theme lyrics to "The Wind Cries Mary": Geoffrey Hill's style is both wide-ranging and knotty, as if the way to proceed is always a problem of focus, a responsibility that must be confronted. Yet, suddenly, here he is on a high plain of forthrightness. The poem ends:

Somewhere the slave is master of his desires
And lords it in great music
And the children dance

Cymbal clash of grace and clarity from an often deliberately graceless poet?  Or a burst of sentimentality, special pleading, and a bid for applause? As in music, concluding cymbals can carry either message, or both.

With Richard Wilbur's measured, elegant muse, the memorable endings almost always have the authentic ring. Thanks, Barbara, wherever you are now, for the insight.


Monday, October 16, 2017

Hooray for Hollywood: A well-deserved kick in the tailored pants of Harvey Weinstein, with a swipe at Hollywood's code of silence

Hooray for HOllywood! That screwy, ballsy, gooey Hollywood! Where when you venture behind the scene You see Harvey Weinstein (more than you care to): Whether starlet or barmaid, you may feel a star made And report it only if you dare to. Hooray for Hollywood! You'll be soaring if you make him feel good: Your talent's terrific (even if it's sub-par); Say yes, you'll go far; say no, he'll rant. It's just about sex, so suppress that gag reflex And keep your distance from that potted plant! Hooray for Hollywood! That phony, pure baloney Hollywood! Now you may come from Gotham or Australia, He'll try to nail ya before you say "Scram!" or "Ouch!" Don't doubt his moxie, it's orthodoxy: The way to stardom's still the casting couch. Hooray for Hollywood! Don't look for allies in the neighborhood: The culture there is all about protection For his erection, so try to make that monkey look good! Mum's been the word for years, so hide those salty tears: Hooray for Hollywood!

Saturday, October 14, 2017

All-American program by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra will move to Carmel Sunday

The two American works that make up this weekend's Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra program are freighted with meaning.
Michael Francis has strong convictions about the Copland Third.
Some of it may fairly be described as the interpreter's choice, however.

Whether Copland's Symphony No. 3 (1946) benefits from the comprehensive, yet concise explanation that guest conductor Michael Francis gave it Friday in remarks from the podium to the Hilbert Circle Theatre audience is open to question. The program's other piece, Leonard Bernstein's 1949 Symphony No. 2 ("Age of Anxiety") has explicit reference to the anxiety of individuals in a time of general conflict and peril.

The composer explained at length the meaning of his two-part composition, with an extensive role for solo piano representing the protagonist. Though he excused listeners from needing familiarity with the W.H. Auden poem of the same title that inspired him, Bernstein was characteristically unshy about providing verbal guidance. The 1940 poem is set as World War II began sweeping over the world, and its resonance remained for Bernstein well after the Allied victory, when the Cold War arms race quickly extended the general anxiety.

Copland, on the other hand, provided accessible but quite analytical notes to his four-movement work for its premiere by the Boston Symphony. The struggles of America at war don't enter into his explanation. In Francis' view, the push-pull between the collective welfare and an individual's search for a firm purchase on confusing times is the process through which the Third Symphony proceeds. 

There was nothing false about his perspective, and the performance bore fruit in Francis' terms. Furthermore, though I don't subscribe to his vision of the work, it's quite clear that if you note signs of emotional distress and uncertainty in the music along the way, the triumphant cast of the finale — keyed to the popular "Fanfare for the Common Man" that Copland wrote in 1942  — has the added benefit of seeming hard-earned.

Orli Shaham put a lot of Bernsteinian character into "The Age of Anxiety."
The fanfare is in its full brassy flower early in the fourth movement. It has been foreshadowed by flutes and clarinets, which, by sounding too loud Friday, didn't quite build the intended suspense. When the work is taken as absolute music, the listener is readier to hear the riches of Copland's score in between the two monumental fanfare appearances, the second one of which is based largely on an apotheosis of the symphony's opening material. 

There is lots going on in that movement that recalls the rigorous training in the art of counterpoint and Renaissance polyphony Copland received (along with many other young Americans) in the Paris studio of Nadia Boulanger nearly a century ago. When your ears are set to the wealth of skill and inspiration in the main body of the movement, you don't have to worry that the symphony's conclusion is simply an overstatement. The light emerges at the end, but it is as much a kind of simplification of the musical palette as it is some kind of metaphorical light.

The other movements exhibit Copland at his most characteristic during the fertile era that also produced "Appalachian Spring."  If the work was also criticized initially as "a pale imitation of Prokofiev" (as the program book reminds us), it must have been due to some resemblance between the rhythms and orchestration of Copland's second movement and the Russian composer's "Lieutenant Kije Suite." But that blithe similarity is soon neatly moderated by a characteristic American sort of lyrical episode.

As for the "Age of Anxiey" symphony, it enchanted with a quite soft, interwoven clarinet duet as the Prologue got under way. Orli Shaham caught the introspective mood of the piano's entrance, and the mercurial nature of Bernstein's autobiographical concept was something she connected with throughout. An admirer of the older composer, Bernstein shows his enthusiasm for the angular writing of Copland's "Piano Variations" near the end of Part I. 

The purple passages of the composer's jazz tribute in "The Masque" were brightly executed, with much glorious interaction between the soloist and the percussion section. Rapport between piano and podium seemed airtight. When the strings entered after a long layoff, this music — necessarily connected to its extramusical meaning but easier to take in if you won't worry about all that — became thoroughly convincing, right through to the end.

ISO audiences need more programs like this one — concerts that bring to the fore the best products of musical America in the 20th century.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Beethoven at the summit: Danish String Quartet sketches in a master's development in Ensemble Music Society concert

Writing out of profound deafness with all his sense of sound internalized, it's no wonder that Ludwig van Beethoven set even greater emphasis upon what new vistas were open to his imagination as he composed his late string quartets.
The Danish String Quartet made its  Indiana debut to start Ensemble Music's season. 

"Art demands of us all that we shall not stand still," he said to a friend in explanation of the new ground he explored in his B-flat quartet, op. 130. "You will find a new manner of part-writing, and thank God! there is less lack of imagination than before."

Ensemble Music Society's program annotator, the estimable Nicholas Johnson of Butler University, links this self-assessment to the Quartet in C-sharp minor, op. 131, with which the Danish String Quartet ended its concert Thursday evening at the Indiana History Center. Whichever of the two masterpieces Beethoven's statement applies to — he said at different times that each was his greatest work in this form — it could very well suit either.

The C-sharp minor quartet filled the entire second half of an outstanding concert. The work is demanding and still feels innovative. The four Danes gave a wonderful account of the sprawling, seven-movement composition.

Its first challenge is to put across the transfiguring music of the opening movement, a slow fugue. Fugues tend to direct the focus on the matching of voices that occur and recur in succession; they usually move at a pretty good clip, making the coordination of fugal conversation fairly straightforward. This piece's Adagio start requires that the impression of unity be sustained and steadily expressive in the long view. The Danish String Quartet achieved this impression without fail. Its phrasing was silken and steady at the predominant soft dynamic level.

The work proceeded with such well-honed insight supported by firm execution. After a suspenseful transition, the first fast movement maintained the group's fully supported phrasing as the dynamics took on more of the typical Beethoven variety, pushing toward the extremes of the spectrum. By the fourth movement, hairpin dynamic turns were adroitly managed, setting up the exuberant rush of the Presto movement, featuring a brisk theme the composer never seems to tire of. The Danes made sure the audience didn't tire of it, either. After a short Adagio, with the ensemble sporting its most glowing, chorale-like tone, the Allegro finale was given astonishingly forceful treatment, never veering out of control, settling down at the very end into slow measures that have more triumph than exhaustion about them.

As violist Asbjørn Nørgaard told the audience from the stage before a note was sounded, Beethoven got his start in the string-quartet medium as a newcomer to Vienna, where the classical model of the string quartet, however formidably established by Haydn and Mozart, was linked by social custom to entertainment music. That did not prevent the young composer from seeing how to individualize his first contributions to the genre: the six quartets of Op. 18.

The Danish String Quartet (other members: violinists Frederik Øland and Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen and cellist Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin) played two of them, starting with No. 2 in G major. Local music lovers had the opportunity to hear this work played just last week by the Indianapolis String Quartet. For all the merits of that performance by a newly constituted group, Thursday evening's showed the clear benefits of a regular ensemble bond. The excellence of the Danes was immediately apparent: the warm blend on long notes in the second movement, with abrupt contrasts in fast music smoothly handled. It was amazing to see that variation in vibrato served the music and confirmed the group's pinpoint intonation: the final chord of the second movement, with all four playing pianissimo, without vibrato, was magical.

In the Scherzo came another revelation: all decent quartets give precise value to rests, but this one had a way of making rests seem as rhythmically alive as the sounded notes. The rhythmic sweep of the entire movement was thus reinforced. In the finale, all dynamic contrasts were immediate and unanimous where indicated.

In No. 3 in in D major (with the violinists changing parts, as with America's Emerson), the contrasts of dreaminess and vigor are substantial, and both the tone and rhythmic acuity of the players were further confirmed. The majestic finale was given the light-hearted spirit the material suggests, but the movement takes on the "orchestral" texture often noted in Brahms' chamber music for strings. After all that coordinated energy, the Danes made the most of the  cute soft ending.

After such an exhibition of superior music-making on superior music, this listener was left considering the still unfathomable nature of genius, particularly that displayed in the C-sharp minor quartet. No response is adequate besides something puckish like: Beethoven — what a great composer! Too bad he isn't better known. That must be what immortality is for.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

IVCI, Ronen Chamber Ensemble join forces again to launch 2017-18 Laureate Series

The upper size limit of chamber-music ensemble is nine, and on that conventional pinnacle the opening Laureate Series concert
Chin Kim has had a full career since competing with distinction here in 1986.
of the 2017-18 season concluded Tuesday night at the Indiana History Center.

Bohuslav Martinu's Nonet for Wind Quintet, Violin, Viola, Cello and Double Bass was the vehicle for maximum display of the Ronen Chamber Ensemble, with 1986 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis laureate Chin Kim representing the IVCI series, which continues independently from here, as will the Ronen season.

A 60-year-old Korean-American whose eminent teachers have included Josef Gingold, founder of the IVCI, Kim was among the six finalists in the second competition, all designated laureates. On this return visit, he was joined in a scintillating performance of the Martinu by Ronen co-founders David Bellman, clarinet, and Ingrid Fischer-Bellman cello, plus Mike Chen, viola; Alistair Howlett, flute; Leonid Sirotkin, oboe; Robert Danforth, French horn, Kelly Swensson, bassoon, and L. Bennett Crantford, double bass.

The ensemble worked smoothly through the lively exchanges in the first movement. The players poked out the score's colorful accents supporting characteristic Czech melodies and dance rhythms. Fischer-Bellman's solo in the Andante movement established the pensive mood and set the course for a series of elegant mini-solos, including oboe, horn, and viola. The gentle subsiding of passionate song near the end was adeptly handled.

The finale, flecked by nostalgic touches that color its rhythmically lively momentum, confirmed the high level of coordination and sensitivity to blending instrumental color that the ensemble had shown from the first.

The concert's other emphasis on the durable Ronen Chamber Ensemble's attractions came at the beginning, with Kim again in the violin chair, and Chen and Fischer-Bellman filling out the string component, for Mozart's Oboe Quartet in F major. The oboist sported a strong tone and suave, sustained phrasing. In the fast music, chiefly concentrated in the finale (Rondeau: Allegro), there were a few slips in his passage work, but otherwise Sirotkin's agility was well-matched to his steady, well-centered sound.

It was in an "off" chord near the end of the first movement that I began to wonder if the guest violinist's intonation was top-drawer. There was much greater opportunity to  test this impression in Schubert's Fantasy for Violin and Piano in C major, D. 934, with Chih-Yi Chen at the piano. This expansive piece is in every respect a duo, to begin with, so the partnership would have been more solid if Kim had used the music, instead of treating the work like a bonbon. The players matched their contributions well, nonetheless.

But despite the violinist's lyricism and the flair and thorough knowledge of the piece he exhibited, the tone seemed thin and intonation slips were frequent, mostly on the low side of the pitch. In the virtuoso final section of the piece, despite his perky elan, Kim did not display the highest level of bow control. After intermission, Eugene Ysaye's transcription of Saint-Saens' Caprice on an Etude in Form of a Waltz, op. 52, no. 6, indicated that Kim's artistry is founded on both musical insight and technical aplomb, yet intonation remained a problem and his sense of style could not quite make up for a scrawny tone.

This program's concise violin-piano masterpiece highlighting Kim was Ravel's "Tzigane." Performance of the long unaccompanied opening caught the gypsy exoticism that spurred Ravel to represent it so memorably, but seemed lacking in intensity. After the consistently expert pianist joined in, there was a rawness in the violin playing that may have been an interpretive decision. Yet I think the music cannot help showing off the French composer's elegance; that quality was mostly highlighted by the duo's adept alternation of accelerating and slowing phrases before the whirlwind final measures.

We are used to a higher standard of playing from IVCI laureates in this series, and I earnestly wish that standard will soon be re-established.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

New theater company debuts with the bristling dark comedy "Glengarry Glen Ross"

Shelly Levene pleads for his professional life with John Williamson, his wary boss.
Even in a cutthroat world, trust is common coin, but much of it is counterfeit. It's the default medium of exchange, its value ever fluctuating —  sometimes inflated,  sometimes approaching the vanishing point.

It's the world of the seminal drama "Glengarry Glen Ross," a much-admired play by David Mamet rooted in the workaday 1980s: you relied on phones you didn't carry with you, you were dependent on pieces of paper and chalkboard assessments of your standing in the corporate zero-sum game. In today's milieu of ethical slippery slopes, that slightly remote setting hasn't dated at all. In fact, the counterfeiters sometimes seem to be in charge.

The Chicago real-estate culture of "Glengarry Glen Ross" is hardscrabble in a manner built on illusions of success and upward mobility. It is realized on Indy Fringe Theatre's Basile Stage with startling energy and commitment in a production opening this weekend, directed by Aaron Cleveland and representing the debut of a new company, Fat Turtle Theatre.

The coarse language that courses electrically among the play's all-male work force never loses its charge and rarely dips in voltage. Momentary alliances among the agents are fragile, and the play's central one ends in disaster. Professional lifelines rest upon hoarding information, following up on "leads" and closing deals. Since the deals are rarely constructed to benefit either the customer or even primarily the company, it's every man for himself.

As seen Saturday night, "Glengarry Glen Ross" built its tension grippingly in the first act's three contrasting scenes, each of them a two-man conversation. What the first act proposes, the second disposes. The first act is set in a Chinese restaurant near the office, a place with a minimum of atmosphere (jazz in the background is an odd touch), offering little respite from the bleak office setting that brings all the shady machinations to a head in the finale. In this production, it's entirely fitting that neither set does much more than sketch its environment. Any budgetary considerations are entirely congruent with the drama's focus on the bare bones of manipulation and the ruthless quest for personal advantage. Even cheap visual uplift has no place here.

High-energy agent Richard Roma (Tristan Ross) makes the pitch.
The principal hero-victim of the system is Shelly Levene, portrayed by Doug Powers with tightly wound desperation and easily violated self-esteem. With Ryan Reddick wearing a sour poker face as the office boss Williamson, feeling unremitting pressure from his bosses downtown to keep profits up, the contrast between the let-it-all-hang-out veteran salesman and the supervisor not paid to say too much or be compassionate was striking.

In the second act, Williamson will finally say too much. Gesturing compulsively and finding it difficult to keep wheedling and thundering in balance, Powers' Levene quite rightly doesn't stir much sympathy. And that's just the right note, though to feel for him a little in the final scene is perhaps inevitable.

To me, Mamet's hold on the audience consists largely of appealing to our gawker and voyeur instincts. The play's dark humor rests largely on this unsettling proposition: comedy is our enjoyment of bad things happening to people who deserve them. The most ingenious comical twists are in the language. Years ago, the first time I saw "Glengarry Glen Ross," the interruptions, evasions, and fragmentary, staccato outbursts in the dialogue reminded me of the real-life skulduggery laid out in transcripts of the Nixon Watergate tapes.

Conversation in "Glengarry Glen Ross" has to be taken seriously, but not literally (to borrow the useful distinction that's been made to explain how Donald Trump's base interprets his rants and gaffes). An agent addressed by name says defensively, "You talking to me?" He knows very well he's being talked to; he'd just rather not be. Another agent in another scene asks a colleague if they are talking about a crime or just speaking about it.

That's in the show's funniest scene, involving a peppery agent named Dave Moss (Luke McConnell) dropping a plot upon a
mousy intended accomplice, George Aaronow (Jeff Maess).  They bat the scheme's sleazy particulars back and forth, Moss rat-a-tatting his ideas and pretending that Aaronow's sputtering echoes indicate substantial buy-in. It doesn't take much to appear complicit on a playing field where honesty never even suits up for the game.

At the top end of bluster and rage is Richard Roma, played by Tristan Ross as a grateful protege of Levene's but definitely focused upon the need to be his own man. His gabby cultivation of a hesitant client dining at a neighboring table is the first act's third scene. Rex Riddle trimly plays a man dominated by his wife's skepticism and, in the second act, mustering just enough resistance to compound Roma's troubles.

As a persistent police detective, Jason Page represented well the avenging angel visited upon this demented workplace. He's undeterred in his examination of a crime that has roiled the office, though the character exhibits more patience than the Chicago cop stereotype. But that's part of the deadly beauty of "Glengarry Glen Ross": fate is implacable, and if it sometimes seems patient with us, it's because it knows who's really at the top of that chalkboard.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

A favorite conductor, a favorite violinist — everything was in the cards for the ISO this weekend

Ever have the feeling when listening to music that you'd like to ask the composer in mid-flight, "OK, now what are you driving at, exactly?"?
Joshua Bell plays three times with the ISO this weekend, the last one at 5:30 today.

Pop music has to be catchy to catch on. Classical music properly asks your indulgence and patience. Yet I often find, occasionally even with a piece I know pretty well, the question arising: What are you driving at here, Gustav? (Or whoever; the name's not randomly chosen, but I don't mean the Englishman.)

I like it when a composition doesn't force this question upon me. When you hear Schumann's Symphony No. 3 in E-flat ("Rhenish"), you know right away what it's driving at. Since music is intelligible but not translatable (an insight of Claude Levi-Strauss' admired by Igor Stravinsky), in this concert review I can't articulate just what it's driving at.

But "Bam!" — there it was Friday night at the Hilbert Circle Theatre: that Lebhaft (lively) first movement, asserting itself like a pop-up thundershower, with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra under the accustomed smooth guidance of Jun Märkl, a favorite podium guest. Sure, there were a few frayed phrases here and in the closing Lebhaft movement, but on the whole the performance was rich in character and color. 

The slowing tempo near phrase ends in the Scherzo was quite effective in emphasizing the music's song-like nature. And the tension before the movement's climax was judiciously applied. The short Nicht schnell movement had a trim, yet billowing, feeling that set up the Feierlich fourth movement. This music, inspired by the Cologne Cathedral, brought out a rich impasto of wind sonorities, and the sunny disposition of the finale was thus perfectly set in context.

You never have to wonder here what Schumann is driving at, in other words, particularly in such a spirited performance. My mischievous question doesn't indicate a prejudice against introductions, however. Introductory material often makes what follows quite clear, even if it is not exploited in a score's main body. The program's other two pieces demonstrated that.

Japanese-German guest conductor always goes over well here with orchestra and audience.
Franz Liszt's "Les Preludes" is driving at elucidating the mystery of Lamartine's  poem of the same name via exploration of a fresh formal approach to musical coherence, although the composer drew some of his original inspiration from another poet, as Marianne Williams Tobias' program note helpfully points out. 

The introduction puts enough mystery into the poet's meditations upon life itself, and it includes a big tune likely to dominate everyone's memory of the piece — somewhat like the tune in the introduction to Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto. The majestic melody has had an odd couple of uses in radio history: Dr. Joseph Goebbels appropriated it to announce German military victories in World War II, and another Dr. Joseph, Maddy by name, chose it as theme music for  concert broadcasts from the Interlochen Arts Academy and National Music Camp in Michigan. Maddy got there first, by the way.

Märkl led a poised performance of "Les Preludes," adept at handling several important transitions in the one-movement work. Rhythms in the "tempest" episode had lightning vigor. The pastoral section, with harp, violins, and decorative woodwinds quite eloquent in this performance, anticipates Wagner's "Forest Murmurs" from "Siegfried." The return of that big tune to cap the work had an extra level of grandeur, and the stage was set psychologically for the highly anticipated return of Joshua Bell to the ISO's home stage.

Max Bruch's "Scottish Fantasy" also has a vivid introduction that leaves no doubt the German composer found the relative exoticism of Scotland's folk music enthralling and was eager to have listeners as excited by it as he was. Orchestral color is more pronounced than in other Bruch works, and the old songs are showcased in a manner calculated to appeal mostly to two subgroups of music lovers: those with imaginary or actual roots in Scottish culture and connoisseurs of fancy fiddling. 

Bell was predictably able to deliver to both sorts of fans, and others as well. His way of turning a melody to its highest expressive potential is well-known. Model bow control, sustained with a high wrist position, provides ample assurance that every phrase will be sculpted and, where appropriate, spun out to a golden tendril of sound. So it was Friday by Hoosier violin-playing's ageless golden boy, who turns 50 in December.

Märkl made the accompaniment work at all points. There was nice tempo variety in the Allegro as "Dusty Miller" was expounded upon brightly. Principal harpist Diane Evans contributed superbly to the eldritch atmosphere. The violas attractively ushered the audience into the Andante, where the lament "I'm a-doun for lack of Johnnie" provided Bell a heart-tugging melodic vehicle. 

This is the sort of piece that not only has you leaving the hall humming the tunes, but also is likely to plant an ear-worm or two in your head. I'm sure I wasn't the only one so affected, or afflicted.

That may be exactly what it's driving at.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Mike Stern and Bill Evans bring their powerhouse quartet to the Jazz Kitchen

Having been a sideman of Miles Davis' at any stage of his storied career is not enough to make a career, but it helps.
Mike Stern and Bill Evans took no prisoners in their Jazz Kitchen visit.

For guitarist Mike Stern and saxophonist Bill Evans, whatever the trumpet icon saw in them as young men has carried them into middle age and allowed them to form a sturdy partnership as leaders — in addition to the solo careers each man has built since those glory days of late-stage Davis in the 1980s.

They brought their quartet to the Jazz Kitchen Tuesday night for two sets.  Backing them up were Teymur Phell, bass guitar, and Richie Morales, drums. Presenting a first set designed to set the ears back and bulge the walls a little, the quartet was met with waves of appreciation from the near-capacity audience.

There is some nuance in even the stormiest Stern-Evans inspirations, as was evident right off the bat after "Out of the Blue" was launched, and Stern's solos got under way after the ensemble rave-up, with the normally hard-hitting Morales moving to brushes. The guitarist's reflective etude-like passages made a transition to chords, and things gradually got frantic once again.

Stern has a lot of variety in his guitar attack, and I tend to prefer his less shredding moods. I particularly liked the Stern composition that opened with a gentle cadenza on guitar, found Evans picking up the soprano sax and then exchanging phrases with the guitarist. A wordless falsetto vocal from Stern paralleling his guitar lines was sweetly effective in putting the Caribbean-style piece across. Both frontmen stuck to their lyrical side as the unnamed song moved to a conclusion.

The forceful tenor saxophone of Evans is sometimes set aside as he switches to synthesizer. And in his composition "Kings and Queens," while at the keyboard he belted out a vocal with words — the most pop-oriented performance of the set. Stern joined him as backup falsettist, reinforcing the lyrics. But Evans made sure his tenor had plenty to say in the middle, before the vocal returned to effect a poised straddling of the pop-jazz border.

After another rather soft-spoken Stern composition called "I Believe You," the band wrapped things up with the full-bore "Trip," a driving piece that brought Morales to the fore, where his ceaseless devotion to maintaining the pulse flowered into full exploitation of the kit. It was the kind of set-ender that no doubt encouraged many of the first-set patrons to stay for two.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

With one change of personnel and a distinguished guest, the Indianapolis Quartet opens its second season in residence at UIndy

The Indianapolis Quartet, with clarinetist Todd Palmer, performed at UIndy.
Any accomplished clarinetist today has ample reason to be grateful to a couple of distant, distinguished predecessors on the instrument. They can rightly feel they know Richard Mühlfeld and Anton Stadler through the masterpieces by Johannes Brahms and Wolfgang Mozart, respectively, that each clarinetist inspired.

For the centerpiece of a season-opening concert in the Faculty Artist Series at the University of Indianapolis, the Indianapolis Quartet welcomed the protean master clarinetist Todd Palmer for a performance of Mozart's Quintet in A major for Clarinet and Strings, K. 581.

Stadler was a close friend and Masonic lodge brother during Mozart's productive Vienna decade. He was also somewhat of a nag seeking loans from the composer, who until the end was a little shaky on money matters. What are friends for? Putting that aside, Stadler was a master musician whose gifts drew from Mozart not only the supernal Clarinet Concerto but the work played by Palmer and the quartet Monday night in Lilly Performance Hall, DeHaan Fine Arts Center.

The performance presented the piece in bold profile. Gustav Mahler sometimes put the word "keck" in his scores, an indication that he wanted "cheeky" or "fresh" playing where indicated. That's the sort of clarinetist Palmer seemed to be, though this is not to say it was the only attribute he brought to the music. Stadler must have been "keck" himself, so this characteristic of Palmer's applies fully to the score.

It was evident in the genial five-way partnership in the first movement, and particularly in the lively dialogue between first violinist Zachary De Pue and Palmer just before a reflective episode in the work's finale. The quintet imparted a folk-like casualness to the third movement Menuetto that never got sloppy. It was whimsical but well-controlled. It was keck.

Other high points in the Mozart work: In the second movement, Larghetto, the ensemble managed to impart lots of weightiness to its phrasing without drooping. The slowing tempo at the end was marvelously unified. The dynamic control throughout was exemplary. One other detail: Michael Isaac Strauss' playing of the variation for viola in the finale sounded especially expressive and heartfelt and timely, the Day of Atonement having been last weekend. Or maybe it was simply the most stirring representation on the program of the fact the concert had been dedicated to victims of Sunday's Las Vegas massacre.

The Indianapolis Quartet, with Joana Genova making her local debut as second violinist (cellist Austin Huntington is the fourth member), opened the program with Beethoven's Quartet in G major, op. 18, no. 2. It was a brisk yet well-grounded performance, capped by a blithe Scherzo and a finale that opened with the lightest of touches and throughout gave free rein to the "quasi Presto" indication. Not all the violins' eight-note groups of thirty-second notes in the first-movement theme were as clear as they ought to have been. This isn't a matter of nit-picking about ornamentation, since the figure is an essential part of the movement's "personality." Otherwise the rendition sounded shipshape.

After intermission came Brahms' String Quartet in A minor, op. 51, no. 2. It provided significant contrasts with the concert's first half: those thundering unisons, the pedal points, the "orchestral" textures (especially in the middle part of the second movement), the self-conscious classicism.

The quartet moved well together through the Brahmsian thickets. I was particularly struck by the haunted quality of the third movement, where the composer draws on that peculiar Black Forest atmosphere of German romanticism in a manner suggestive of his friend Schumann or the Weber of "Der Freischütz." Capturing this so well was among many ways the concert confirmed the great boon to local music that the Indianapolis Quartet seems fit to provide.

[Photo by Cathy Rossi]

Saturday, September 30, 2017

'Amazon' is a new version of an old song pitching woo to the giant online retail monster

Swing fans remember the Benny Goodman Quartet's exciting version of "Avalon," but this new song parody adopts the wistful approach of the Al Jolson original to focus on the Fishers-Indianapolis pitch to Amazon to locate its massive new headquarters somewhere around here.

ISO Classical Series gets under way with sparkling Gershwin, deep-delving Tchaikovsky

Jean-Yves Thibaudet is fully engaged with Gershwin's Concerto in F.
The two lengthy works on the first program of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's Classical Series are masterpieces about which their composers were doubtful. (No such doubts seem to have clung to the creation of the program's first piece, Mozart's "Magic Flute" Overture, of which the ISO delivered a statuesque, well-thought-out performance.)

It's hard to imagine, especially with the ISO's scintillating performances Friday evening of Gershwin's Concerto in F and Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5 in E minor, just what vexed their creators.

But Tchaikovsky wrote that he felt he had to prove with the work that he wasn't played out as a composer, and he allowed that maybe the resulting symphony had merit. After its premiere, however, and a performance he conducted in Prague, the always self-censorious composer said "there is something repulsive about it."

Gershwin, by contrast, had a background in popular music to overcome (in the minds of some, including hidebound critics). His earlier "crossover" hit, "Rhapsody in Blue," had not been orchestrated by him, so he studied hard to learn the technique for his more ambitious three-movement concerto. Even his forte — writing memorable melodies — was in doubt: In retreat at Chatauqua, N.Y., in July 1925, he wrote a friend that he was "praying...to the God of Melody to please be kind to me and send me some hair-raising 'blues' for my second movement."

Mondrian's "Broadway Boogie-Woogie"
The god came through, as Friday's audience at Hilbert Circle Theatre heard. That marvelous tune for solo trumpet, felt-muted, was enchantingly played with a sweet, but not excessive, vibrato from one side balcony, then another, by principal trumpet Conrad Jones. More amazing was the absolute rapport displayed throughout between piano soloist Jean-Yves Thibaudet and conductor Krzysztof Urbanski.

Thibaudet has a knack for the American vernacular, particularly the interplay between jazz and classical piano. He has issued a stunning CD with interpretations of the music of Bill Evans, a venerated jazz master. The accents characteristic of Gershwin can be neither slighted nor pounded out to deliver an idiomatic performance of the Concerto in F.  And Thibaudet's touch seemed just right for the piece; nor did he short-change the tender and filigreed passages.

The coordination between keyboard and podium was spiffy at all points. The finale, which the composer described as "an orgy of rhythms," had all its roiling energy in place. The pulsating mosaic moved with both energy and logic, in the manner that those brightly colored squares seem to move in Piet Mondrian's famous painting "Broadway Boogie-Woogie."

Astonishingly, a member of the august New York critical community named Lawrence Gilman found the concerto "conventional, trite... a little dull." The New York Times' Olin Downes was even harsher, but I bet the most hurtful response to the high-energy composer was to have his music called dull.

Some classical musicians were likewise unimpressed. An account of Gershwin's meeting with the Russian composer Alexander Glazunov after the premiere of Concerto in F was a blow to the American's ambition. Through an interpreter, Gershwin expressed an interest in studying orchestration with Glazunov, who responded in a way the interpreter couldn't bear to translate: "He wants to study orchestration, but he knows nothing about counterpoint." No Glazunov-Gershwin lessons ever happened.

Glazunov had a point: The accompaniment throughout Concerto in F is long on color and rhythm, somewhat deficient in  providing independent lines that fit with the main material. No such charge can be leveled against another consummate tunesmith, Glazunov's eminent countryman Tchaikovsky. Though Glazunov's personal loyalty was to Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, all Russian composers knew how much the international stature of their music was linked to Tchaikovsky, particularly the lyrical component.

You can hear, for  example, such contrapuntal richness between the two appearances of the "Fate motif" in the second movement, just how much attention Tchaikovsky lavished upon detail that was more than ornamental. Urbanski drew from the orchestra a high degree of definition to all the score's treasures. Though attention is properly focused on such glories as the French horn solo, which Robert Danforth played with a full-blooming security Friday night, there is so much more to admire.

The Fate motive, especially when it ascends to unprecedented heights in the finale, is sometimes taken as a sign of Tchaikovsky's submission to an implacable force of largely negative significance. I rather hear it in terms of his being reconciled to something that goes beyond the individual will and experience. In this respect then, the ghostly appearance of that motif near the end of the third-movement waltz carries notes of reconciliation and quiet acceptance.

The Fifth Symphony was introduced to the world in November 1888. Maybe Tchaikovsky found "repulsive" having to submit to the Fate he holds up so magnificently in the E minor symphony. But Fate was for him something like Robert Frost's "My November Guest." The first and last stanzas of that early poem are germane to how we  can profitably sink into the atmosphere of Tchaikovsky's Fifth.

My Sorrow, when she's here with me
   Thinks these dark days of autumn rain
Are beautiful as days can be;
She loves the bare, the withered tree;
   She walks the sodden pasture lane.


Not yesterday I learned to know
   The love of bare November days
Before the coming of the snow,
But it were vain to tell her so
    And they are better for her praise.

Tchakovsky's Fate, like Frost's Sorrow, is a companion that allows the artist to deal with bleakness by finding it better and more beautiful than previously thought. And that greater purpose can be usefully extended to us as well, especially through splendid performances. The praise of a creator's companion pain can mysteriously result in the reader's or listener's  pleasure.

Friday, September 29, 2017

IRT's "Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" moves us to a place where few of us have been

There's a charming clumsiness about the title of Indiana Repertory Theatre's season-opening show. Quite subtly, it ushers
Christopher confronts the London Underground in his search for his mother.
audiences into a different way of looking at the world, a clumsiness that speaks to both the maladjustment and insights of autism.

"The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" sounds like genre fiction, and indeed there is an air of murder mystery about how events unfold at first from the discovery in an English middle-class garden of a dead dog with a pitchfork in its side. By the end of the first act of Simon Stephens' play, however, the "whodunit" aspect has been settled. We are left with a deeper focus on the pathos of autism and its effects on those who have the condition as well as on their loved ones.

Mickey Rowe is the first American actor with autism to play the role of Christopher in this deeply affecting drama, charged with surrealism in its sights and sounds so as to bring us more truly into the hero's private world. Apart from his strict tastes in matters of food and color, Christopher is a brilliant 15-year-old, fearful of strangers and subject to meltdowns when stressed or overloaded with sense impressions.

To follow up on his discovery of the handsome black Labrador's body, Christopher assigns himself the task of finding the killer, recoiling from the hysteria of Mrs Shears, the pet's owner, while pressing forward. That is enough to start him on a journey outside his comfort zone. To have a goal unconnected with his specialized knowledge of mathematics and outer space conflicts with the extreme presentism of his condition. If asked "What are you doing?" an autistic person is likely to answer, "Talking to you."
Christopher (Mickey Rowe) and his mother (Constance Macy).

Supported by every aspect of the production, Rowe takes us deep inside an outlook as hemmed in by private rules and boundaries as any we might imagine. The social cues that most of us learn to process in the normal course of development are not something Christopher can initiate or respond to. Those private rules are always being violated, because they are not how the world runs.

The style of the production will seem avant-garde to some patrons. I cannot otherwise account for several walkouts I noticed at Thursday evening's performance. I've never seen the like at an IRT production. The show's method of telling Christopher's story is wholly consonant with who he is, however, and aids our understanding at every point. The line between theater's conventional presentation of an illusion and the reality it draws upon is crossed and recrossed.

Thus I can't help thinking that the production's way of communicating Christopher's habitual disorientation was uncomfortably disorienting to some. That's a crucial measure of the show's success under Risa Brainin's direction and the design team of Russell Metheny (scenes), Devon Painter (costumes), Michael Klaers (lighting), Todd Mack Reischman (sound), and Katherine Freer (projections). Michelle DiBucci's original music, a boat with a Glass bottom, completed the atmosphere.

Rowe's fascinating essay in the program book reminds us that "autistics use scripts every day," and thus the everyday life that most of us carry out "off book" is a continual challenge to them. In "Curious Incident," then, we are necessarily in a world that blurs accident and organization, inadvertence and intention.

An outstretched hand, fingers apart, has to be his father's way of making contact with Christopher.
The shock of recognition this play forces upon us is that normality moves all of us close to the autistic world now and then: We rehearse what we are going to say, we seesaw between what we want and what others expect of us, and we become rattled in strange environments that don't easily permit us to get our bearings. The spectacular London Underground scene, with its rush and blur of action, its bristling indifference and pervasive pollution of sight and sound, was usefully disturbing: "I've been there," I thought, yet without anything like Christopher's desperate, methodical search for his mother, who has moved under duress from the family home in middle-size Swindon to London, about 80 miles east.

Christopher's detailed writing about his life is redirected toward dramatic presentation with the encouragement of Siobhan, his nurturing, insightful teacher, given steadiness and compassion in Elizabeth Ledo's performance. With their offstage voices,
multiple roles for six of them and their deployment shifting scenery and props, the rest of the cast keeps reminding us that to the autistic, other people are mainly emblematic of threats and challenges in the environment. They are figures merely, or metaphors, and thus (in Christopher's blunt view) lies. How theatrical!

Besides Siobhan, the two constants in Christopher's world are represented by the two actors who inhabit one character each: his parents, Ed and Judy. The anxiety and constant pressure of bringing up a severely autistic son has told upon them in drastic ways. Robert Neal and Constance Macy embodied the physical and psychic ache of conveying intimacy to a son who helplessly makes intimacy next to impossible, thus putting his parents' bond in deep peril.

Rowe's vocal tone and physical grace in representing Christopher's vexed self-assurance and awkwardness seemed magical. And when the spine-tingling happy ending, which I of course can't reveal, is capped by the boy's unanswered question to Siobhan, we feel an odd confidence that we know the answer. But that's only because we have been led so masterfully by this production toward experiencing a different order of reality, one that like our own is undergirded by love.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Thursday, September 28, 2017

La Belle Dame Sans Merci: A beloved ballad modernized for the digital age

John Keats (1795-1821)
John Keats wrote about a "knight at arms" (alternatively a "wretched wight") in thrall to a mysterious female spirit he called La Belle Dame Sans Merci.

After too much time wasted on my iPhone one day, I felt like that lonely fellow, somewhat drugged by fleeting digital attractions and a little depressed, alarmed at the pull of these devices, satisfying but ultimately alarming.

Where have I found in my reading such a dangerous pull toward separation into a fantasy environment  whose haunting peril is lent such mastery? There was one source only on which to attempt a modernized reflection on such matters.

So I've updated  the English poet's visionary ballad "La Belle Dame Sans Merci"

Well, what can mess you up, old guy,
     Alone and palely loitering?
Your iPhone hosts a flock of tweets
     And no birds sing.

So what's your trouble, lazy man,
     So haggard from long scrolling?
Your count of "likes" is mounting up;
      There's little trolling.

Yet there's a shadow in your mind,
       Dull anguish on your how,
You've clicked on many a faded post
        Hours up to now.

The muse of social media
       Visits you, a child:
She leads you on, the hours fly,
      And her eyes are wild.

She tempts you onto Instagram
     And haunts Facebook and Twitter;
As you keep browsing your news feed
      Her wild eyes glitter.

You serve her bounty with your time,
      She makes the world seem new,
She is La Belle Dame Sans Merci:
       She loves you true.

The links you visit, shares you press,
        Thumbs-up and hearts you've posted:
Are those from friends known in the flesh
         Or merely ghosted?

A dream of connectivity
         With horrid warning wide
Has me in thrall; I wake and find
           No life beside.

And that is why I sojourn here
          Like millions; it's a thing
To tap and drowse: What's on our minds
          When no birds sing?

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Drew Petersen launches his residency at University of Indianapolis with a recital

Drew Petersen played an all-American recital.
It was a kaleidoscope of interpretations that struck the ear most when in April the finalists in the American Pianists Association's season-long contest played Judith Lang Zaimont's "Attars," the commissioned work of this year's classical piano competition.

And that was just one of the ways in which Drew Petersen made his mark on his way to winning the 2017 contest. Despite my reluctance to choose favorites while a competition is in progress, Petersen had won me over last January with his revelatory performance of Robert Schumann's problematic "Humoreske."

The announcement of the Christel DeHaan Fellowship win brought news of an additional honor for the APA winner. On Monday night, Petersen launched a two-year residency at the University of Indianapolis with a solo recital in the Lilly Performance Hall of the DeHaan Fine Arts Center. The arrangement will bring him to the Southside campus for one week each semester through the 2018-19 school year for lectures, lessons, master classes, and performances.

Monday's all-American program opened with "Attars," which quickly confirmed the richness and depth of his playing. The five movements of this dappled evocation of essential oils test a pianist's skill at imparting pastel colors to an instrument inherently percussive. Petersen displayed the knack; Zaimont's score aspires to a synesthetic blend of olfactory and auditory impressions. The bluesy quality and the relaxed pulse given to "Musk," the second of the attars represented, was especially inviting.

Something in "Pink Lotus," a hymnlike quality, foreshadowed much of the atmosphere of "The Alcotts," a movement from Charles Ives' embrace of New England's transcendentalist heritage, Sonata No. 2 ("Concord, Mass., 1840-60"). Petersen displayed his skill at layering sonorities, so that some of Ives' brief quotations and paraphrases of 19th-century parlor piano had a veiled quality. It was as if they were summoned up through the scrim of fading memories. The signature motif of Beethoven's Fifth recurs, less "fate knocking at the door" than fate closing the door softly behind it.

American impressionism from a less magpie sensibility ended the recital with the short-lived Charles Thomlinson Griffes' Fantasy Pieces, op. 6.  The "Barcarolle" rocked back and forth with a tenderness as pungent as a gondolier's song. The central piece, "Notturno," the most deeply impressionistic of the three miniatures, featured a hushed ending that took the breath away. "Scherzo," the finale, was most thickly scored, yet its galloping rhythm remained firmly etched.

Two encores from Gershwin were offered, starting with Earl Wild's sugary etude transcription of "The Man I Love," its romantic haze quickly counteracted by a brisk, agreeably insouciant performance of a Prelude.

The substantial center of the program, divided sensibly by an intermission, consisted of Samuel Barber's Piano Sonata, op. 26, and Elliott Carter's Sonata (1945-46). The Barber benefited from a rare endorsement by Vladimir Horowitz, which helped underpin the composer's claim to a solid place in the repertoire apart from the modernist mainstream. Not that his sonata ignores the bracing dissonance and formal complexity that people generally associate with 20th-century music; there is a torrent of competing voices in the Allegro energico first movement, characteristically brought to clarity by Petersen.

The Tchaikovskyan spirit of the second movement was put through a modern American filter, with blues and Great American Songbook touches evident in its toccata-like sweep. Petersen's patient elucidation of the slow movement, Adagio mesto, was exemplary, with another Romantic carryover — apt rubato discrepancies between the right and left hands.

Something mischievous in me almost wishes the Barber sonata ended there, that it could be contemplated as a magnificent torso, a Winged Victory for our times.

But Barber, inheriting the 19th-century habit of putting the most virtuosic and expressive weight on final movements, chose to end with a fugue. The form is fine in its place, but its place doesn't strike me as right for the mid-20th century. However, the choice is fully within Barber's retrospective manner, and, to be sure, he knew how to play the master craftsman. Each time the subject came up, Petersen pointed the way brightly. The theme's rhythmic profile was always precise and snappy. The stretto marshaled a final rush of energy, with a big crescendo toward the end. Yes, we are properly wowed, Samuel.

Though there's much of Elliott Carter's music I can't claim to understand, his pursuit of an individual path just a few years before Barber wrote his sonata is much more attractive to me. His Sonata is a worthy monument, worth repeated hearings, in a career that always prized innovation, but without gimmickry or outre stuff on, around or near the keyboard. Petersen's performance gave plenty of room to the spacious layout of the first movement in particular; he was attentive to the interplay between sustained notes' resonance and freshly struck notes.

The second movement shows that Carter had not shed his "Americanist" sensibility entirely. The open spaces of Aaron Copland are suggested, and the younger composer had not set aside repetition as firmly as he was about to in the Cello Sonata or, especially, in the groundbreaking First String Quartet.

Nonetheless, the listener to the Sonata is unlikely to feel that Carter is much interested in looking backward, because he bends every reminder of what he previously did, or what his colleagues were up to, toward new ends — new ways of making music's chief solo instrument speak and avoidance of its well-worn pathways of eloquence. The work ends not with spectacle, but on an even rhetorical plateau. Away with inherited devices, formulas, structures! I took pleasure from Petersen's way with both Barber and Carter, but the latter piece was (and remains) a lot closer to my heart.

Monday, September 25, 2017

The Reformation at 500: Indianapolis Baroque Orchestra and the Beecher Singers celebrate a half-millennium of Protestantism

 Indianapolis Baroque Orchestra at work; the photo from its website shows different personnel, in part, from Sunday's concert.
A little over a month from now, half a millennium will have passed since Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the church
door in the German city of Wittenberg.

Assertions of the true nature of penitence, in Luther's view, and thus the young priest's objection to the Roman Catholic Church's sale of pardons ("indulgences") were only the starting point (Oct. 31, 1517).  His quarrel with Rome lasted several years and involved a few more provocative writings before the breach became final with Luther's excommunication and Christianity's most consequential schism.

How appropriate, then, that the concert presented Sunday at Indiana History Center by Indy Baroque and the Beecher Singers (of Second Presbyterian Church) opened with the best-known concerto by J.S. Bach, "Brandenburg" No. 5 in D major!  Why appropriate, considering that the music is so buoyant and sunny? Mainly because the concerto form rests on contention, or, in the quaint language of the editor of the score I own, is "rather like quarreling individuals forced to discuss their troubles with one another."

Discussion of religious troubles led to a permanent break in Christianity. In music, the strife — within the music, it should be emphasized — is resolved pleasurably by the skillful composer. The solo concerto rubbed shoulders in its infancy and youth with the concerto grosso, designating a small group of soloists accompanied by a larger group. The full group is covered by the word "tutti" to emphasize the collective spirit toward which all that contention aims. The accompanying group is also referred to by another Italian word, "ripieno," which on the modern-instrument LP through which I first came to love Brandenburg No. 5 was translated literally as "back bench."

I loved the common-coin sense of that term and the way it points to the contrast between the solo group and the rest of the musicians onstage. The Indianapolis Baroque Orchestra chose to have the "ripieno" represented by one to a part: violin, viola, and — as a sort of mediator, the continuo players: cello, violone and "cembalo concertato" (to identify the harpsichord when it is not featured as a solo instrument).

The gain in the IBO version is that there is likely to be less need of a conductor and the textures will be more transparent. The disadvantage is that those contrasts between foreground and background become less obvious. The listener has to concentrate to notice the contest: that the "orchestra" exerts its force repeatedly in the first movement while the solo players cavort in material derived from the theme that keeps returning. Eventually, the somewhat competitive display of flute and violin among the soloists (here, the well-coordinated Leela Breithaupt, flute, and Jennifer Roig-Francoli, leader) yields to the long-admired harpsichord cadenza, putting that soloist on top of the heap. 

The cadenza was played Sunday with a good sense of drama and niftily placed ornamental touches by Thomas Gerber. Ensemble unity and the common sense of purpose shown by the soloists were remarkable throughout. The pace of the second movement was most suitable; the direction at the top (affetuoso) says only how the music should be played (warmly, tenderly) not how fast it should go. Roig-Francoli and her colleagues chose the tempo well.

In the finale, the soloists get to gambol with the music at the outset, letting the "tutti" component tag along in a companionable manner that nonetheless preserves the competitive nature of the concerto form.

The rest of the program involved the Beecher Singers. Conducting the vocal ensemble, sometimes without instrumental accompaniment, was its director, Michelle Louer. The program was well-planned and balanced. 

Michelle Louer conducted the Beecher Singers and Indianapolis Baroque Orchestra.
A modern Bach tribute, an arrangement by Knut Nystedt of "Komm, süsser Tod" that both honored Bach and shifted vocal lines to shed light upon the emotional range of even his small-scale choral works, was refreshing. It was placed between Dietrich Buxtehude's "Mit Fried und Freud" and Felix Mendelssohn's "Verleih uns Frieden gnädiglich" — works that spotlighted significant Protestant composers who came slightly before and well after the foremost one: J.S. Bach.

It was regrettable that the soprano soloist in the Buxtehude was deficient in German diction and vocal projection, but the bass soloist Samuel Spade was excellent. The Nystedt arrangement directed focus upon the secure intonation of the Beecher Singers in an a cappella piece characterized by close harmonies. That firm pitch sense and tidy phrasing also came through in a 16th-century Scottish Psalter setting of Psalm 133 ("Behold, how good and how pleasant"), which was used as a processional for the 11-voice ensemble.

Georg Philipp Telemann had the kind of public accessibility enjoyed by neither Buxtehude nor Bach. His cantata "Herr, wir liegen vor dir," displays his love of instrumental color, such as the paired flutes in the opening chorus. Soloing was brightly accomplished: the soprano aria with text (translated) of "Such righteousness as I own for myself is but a foul cloak" had its humility underlined with violin and viola pizzicatos. For pure, Handelian vigor, there was hardly a place more exciting in the whole program than the "rage" aria for bass, "Away, ye sins, do not grieve me!" It conveyed the feeling that for the truly righteous, sins don't stand a chance of taking root.

After intermission came a richly descriptive Bach cantata, "Christ lag in Todesbanden," an early composition with a crowning position in this program in part because it uses a text by Luther. In seven-line stanzas, each completed with "Hallelujah!," Luther meditates intensely on the meaning of Easter as proof that death is not final, but a transition into glory for Christian believers. 

The emphasis on the various emotions of this realization is complete: There's a dramatic line interruption after the word meaning "nothing" in the line "Nothing remains but death's form." In the next verse, the way the singers toss around the word "Spott" (mockery) illustrates that death is being made fun of conclusively. All this was feelingly performed, with fine solos by the bass, soprano Leah Crane, mezzo-soprano Mitzi Westra, and tenor David Smolokoff.

It's unavoidable to see in Luther's words the background of some of his insights in his digestive troubles (about which he wasn't secretive). The "bonds of death" immediately cited in the first line suggest the costiveness that plagued Luther. Earthly life is death's realm, and the prophecy of bodily death being itself devoured and gobbled up by eternal life is celebrated in just those terms.

For Luther, human existence requires the laxative of divine grace to be tolerable, and significantly, that grace is cast in terms of an Easter feast of nourishing food — presumably the kind that gets the soul's bowels to move: "Faith will live in no other way," exults the last line. Salvation is in large part the promise of relief.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

America's diva lends elegance and sparkle to ISO's Opening Night Gala concert

It's not often that a serious new work is the main feature of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's annual Opening Night Gala
Renee Fleming, known the world over, made her local debut Sunday.
concert, but so it was Sunday evening when Renee Fleming sang a three-year-old song cycle by Kevin Puts, "Letters from Georgia."

The 45-year-old composer was in attendance for the local premiere of his setting of letters by the 20th-century master painter Georgia O'Keeffe. Beforehand, he was brought onstage for a brief conversation about his composition with conductor Krzysztof Urbanski, who must be credited with having achieved a heightened comfort level speaking to audiences from the stage as he begins his seventh season as ISO music director.

It was remarkable from the Hilbert Circle Theatre concert's first notes that the orchestra was in a mood to bring an extra glow to songlike music. The aura of the guest star must have been working to account for the lyrical portions of Leonard Bernstein's Overture to "Candide" having such a firm, blossoming sound. Not that the dominating peppiness of the much-loved piece was absent, but a collective, coordinated relaxation into the work's melodic richness was evident.

Moments of lyricism impelled from within fill the five-part cycle. They helped establish the atmosphere of O'Keeffe's beloved Southwest in the first song, "Taos." The composer's subtlety in broadening the texture, sometimes thinning it out to encompass paradoxically both breathlessness and deep breathing, is displayed again and again. In "Taos," the lengthened phrases of "I just feel so like expanding here — way out to the horizon" were given sufficient amplitude by the soprano soloist and from the podium.

There were many touches of humor in "Violin," when the artist confides her roughness practicing that instrument, an offhand confession underlined by scratchy solos in this performance by Zach De Pue, who was probably thinking back to the grin-and-scratch directive under which he performed as a five- and six-year-old with the family band.

When putting some anxiety into his music, Puts shows restraint. There's a large, swelling sound from the soloist that Fleming handled smoothly at the start of "Ache," the third movement. And, without shifting the mood, dialing back the accompaniment to a piano in the second paragraph of O'Keeffe's love letter worked very well. Then the stage is set for a natural gathering of intensity as the movement reaches its climax.

"Friends," the penultimate song, is fully understated in its projection of loneliness, with brief solo passages for De Pue (this time allowed to move beyond scratching to his customary lyrical aplomb) reinforcing the feeling of isolation. The movement ends with quietly interwoven clarinets, wondrously played in this concert. "Canyon" is a finale without any obvious feeling of triumph, yet it ascends to convey the artist's seasoned acceptance of life's fragility amid the inexhaustible beauties of sky and prairie.

The ISO's fitness for the occasion was further signaled in its adept coloring of the many exciting contrasts of texture and feeling in Verdi's Overture to "La Forza del Destino." Again, the swooning episodes were vividly rendered, making the storm-and-stress portions sound all the more invigorated.

The Verdi served to enable Fleming to rest a little after the Puts work and to change gowns. She continued to make a firm impression in three selections from other Italian opera composers: Arrigo Boito, Giacomo Puccini, and Ruggero Leoncavallo.

The distracted mental state of Marguerite in "L'altra notte in fondo al mare" from "Mefistofele" was precisely projected, as the aria showed off the expressive weight of Fleming's low register. "O mio babbino caro" from "Gianni Schicchi" brought out an amazingly girlish sound from the 58-year-old soloist, ending with a marvelously held "pieta." After a picturesque rendition of Leoncavallo's "Mattinata," it was time for some encores.

Fleming was generous in response to the tumultuous ovation. The Song to the Moon from Dvorak's "Rusalka" was wistful and crystalline, and "I Could Have Danced All Night" paid a forward tribute to Fleming's Broadway debut next year, with the soloist enveloping the hall in extra charm as she invited an audience singalong.

But the biggest pleasant surprise of the evening was her imaginative take on Gershwin's "Summertime," with some variation on the original line quite appropriate to the idiom. Her phrasing was exquisite, especially near the end, when I detected from Urbanski's body language that he was as blown away by her performance as I was.