Friday, August 18, 2017

Fringe Plunge: 'Divos' and 'The Gab' made TOTS' main stage the place to be opening night

After last year's "Divas," it was the turn of male pop stars to get choreographic treatment in Dance Kaleidoscope's seventh engagement at the Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival.

So, of course, "Divos" debuted Thursday night as one of several shows to kick off the 13th annual festival. At Theatre on the Square,
Oneiric fantasy: Missy Thompson's "Dream On"
(Photo by Chris Crawl)
seven members of the contemporary-dance company presented premieres of works choreographed to songs by celebrity male performers of the past few decades.

The songs' rhythmic drive and musical phrasing naturally generate much of the choreography, but the choreographers also have in common an intense interest in how lyrics can guide dance expression. This is clear from each choreographer's spoken introduction to his or her creation — statements that provide the audience with insights into the personal sources and motivations behind the program.

In other words, the divos were celebrated mainly to the degree their music had something vital to impart in dance terms. From Aerosmith's "Dream On" (Missy Thompson) to Rod Stewart's "I'll Stand By You" (Stuart Coleman, in a piece titled "Surround Yourself"), the program unfailingly added an extra dimension to the songs.

"Dream On" rested on the theme of recurring dreams, mostly disturbing, and thus was replete with floating and falling movement, as well as postures of apprehensiveness and confusion, some as if airborne, others grounded. "Surround Yourself" used the full company to reinforce the virtues of group support. Its intricately coordinated, billowing language put stress on cooperation and rapport, the individual drawing sustenance from the ensemble. A particularly striking passage had the company unfolding from a tight circle outward, yielding to a solo in the center. It was like time-lapse photography of a flower in transition from bud to blossom.

Positive energy also was held up in Mariel Greenlee's "Keep Faith," to music of George Michael.  There were churchy moments at first, alluded to later, with stained-glass lighting and prayerful postures. But faith was also addressed in less transcendent ways, in a manner that expertly bridged  the meaning of faith from something remote to something near at hand. In both cases, belief in the unseen is the common denominator, and "Keep Faith" spoke particularly to the reservoir of mutual trust upon which dancers necessarily draw.

As a dancer, Greenlee had to draw upon such trust spectacularly in Brandon Comer's "Dangerous Diana," a medley of Michael Jackson's "Dangerous" and "Dirty Diana." She was the title character, supported by five DK men, and had to keep embodying the first song's laserlike opening line: "There was something different about this girl." Comer's choreography avoided the King of Pop's stylized, angular twitches and tap-rooted footwork to come up with something original, requiring a considerable amount of lift, flexibility and panache from everyone concerned  — and trust galore from Greenlee, who managed to convey both danger and vulnerability as a woman being both venerated and tossed about.

Romantic devotion was a keynote of Paige Robinson's "You Take My Breath Away," the soaring Queen vocalism providing the cue for intense interaction among the six dancers. The same number of dancers was used in a more polarized fashion by Timothy June, setting Johnny Cash's searing "Hurt": Each of three fully visible dancers has a demonic masked partner, making the theme of hurt vividly both internal and external to how we live our lives. The demonic side seemed to score a final victory with a black hand over each anguished face.

Jillian Godwin set the longest piece, a mash-up (mixed by Mike Lamirand) of four Led Zeppelin songs. "Zeppelin" was a real tour-de-force for the troupe's women, the shift among songs complemented by costuming as well as different choreographic dialects. The full ensemble coalesced for the finale. At that climactic stage, the potentially problematic guitar solo — talk about divos! who's more a divo than a rock-guitar god? — was neatly handled with fluid solos and duos for the dancers, yielding to re-emphasis on the ensemble at the end.

As with the whole show, the music was never allowed to swamp the inspiration behind the choreography nor the flair with which it was executed. Roll over, divos; tell the divas the news!
A Zachandzack hit: The shared good cheer of "The Gab" girls is just for show.

The evening thus launched, my next stop was at Angel Burlesque's "Glitter Emergency" at Firehouse Theater. Because this is a last-minute replacement for the originally scheduled act, which withdrew, and with technical troubles dogging the performance, I'm foregoing commentary about the show.

The last act for me opening night was "The Gab," a production by the wizardly team of Zack Neiditch (writer/director) and Zach Rosing (producer/video designer), riffing upon the female talk show of longevity and notoriety called "The View." The rapidfire pace is set at the beginning as Maureen (Devan Mathias) and Alex (Chad Woodward) fuss and fizzle just ahead of airtime to make sure everything's all right. Of course, it isn't.

The competing egos of the star panel have ratcheted the show's tension up to unbearable levels, which means that production underlings like Maureen and Alex have to bear it all, while keeping Jim (voiced by Rosing), the show's director high up in the booth, the almost happy lord of all he surveys. Every diva around the oval table has more issues than National Geographic — and they are just as hard to get rid of.

Rosing and Neiditch dependably fashion productions whose technical adroitness matches their artistic aplomb, and "The Gab" extends the partnership's short, but already illustrious tradition. The cast seems to find the spat-filled scenario totally energizing: Jenni White, Vickie Cornelius Phipps, Nathalie Cruz, Betsy Norton, and Ericka Barker inhabit their characters exuberantly. There is generously proportioned wit, snark, and slapstick throughout the show.

A large screen above the stage replicates in-studio video monitoring, with flashes to "The Gab"'s upbeat title page heralding the next topical segment, for which the ladies hastily compose themselves. Gradually but inexorably, the fragile garment of the hit talk show unravels. The camera's bright lights, nourishing the hothouse plants of daytime stardom, can't forestall the hilarious plunge toward "The Gab"'s dusky extinction. The conclusion resembles Alexander Pope's "Dunciad," which ends:

Lo! thy dread Empire, Chaos! is restored;
Light dies before thy uncreating word:
Thy hand, great Anarch, lets the curtain fall;
And universal Darkness buries all.

Fortunately, the "uncreation" of "The Gab," the fake TV show, mirrors upside down the masterly creation of "The Gab," the  surefire 2017 Fringe Festival hit.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Fringe preview night presents a panoply digest of short-form entertainment over the next 11 days

The applause that greeted a line in Mayor Joe Hogsett's short speech to the IndyFringe Festival's Preview Night audience seemed to have topical resonance.

Mayor Joe Hogsett put an official seal of approval on FringeFest.
In any given year, his words would have been applicable to what the festival is all about. But in 2017, after the mayor had extolled "the performances and talent it attracts," he praised the annual performing-arts bash for "the diversity and inclusion it welcomes and lifts up." Yes!

To mark the start of the festival with two-minute pitches by 50 acts, Hogsett then read excerpts from the mayoral proclamation designating Aug. 16, 2017, as Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival Day in Indianapolis.

Certainly a large crowd gathered in the Athenaeum Theatre knew that the honor is rooted in the open-ended mission of the Fringe, which enters its 13th annual season today, continuing through Aug. 27 on eight stages on and around Massachusetts Avenue.

And while it's always possible to point to ways any artistic project could inject even more diversity into what it offers the public, IndyFringe is establishing a solid record. For one thing, it has cultivated two mini-festivals during the regular season to promote female and black playwrights, respectively: DivaFest and OnyxFest.

The range of presentations Wednesday evening was immense. Many were excerpts — scenes, songs, anecdotes, jokes, vignettes — from shows that specialize in those things. The idea was to whet the appetite for admission to the full 45-minute to 1-hour performance, most of them available six times between today and a week from Sunday.

In contrast, the choice to talk about their shows was perhaps provoked by the artists' sense that no two-minute excerpt could do justice to them. A pair of agile, improvisational clowns kept performers within the 2-minute limit and chased erring artists gently but firmly offstage.

Jill Ditmire and George Wallace acted as hosts for the parade of performers, with cameo appearances that included a charming duo team of Indianapolis City-County Council members: Zach Adamson and Jeff Miller. They would have been an example of smooth-working bipartisanship if not for technical difficulties with the soundtrack meant to accompany their Bad Lip Reading-style collection of "real" lyrics behind a few popular recordings.

Like many attendees, my response to the parade of pitches was all over the place. Some choices I made in advance are now tinged with qualms or even regret. Some things I had passed over now look to me like must-sees. Other wham-bam presentations left me in a vast "meh" area.

That's part of the fun of the Fringefest: no hunches are set in stone, but at least bets you place on shows that will please you are more likely to pay off than any given lottery. Sure, you pay a little more to place those bets, but the rewards are more probable.

So: Happy Fringing (or should that be "Fringeing," so it doesn't rhyme with "ringing"?)!

Monday, August 14, 2017

13th annual IndyFringe Festival opens soon with late night additions and short runs for out-of-town artists

Thanks to a successful expansion of its home base, which enabled year-round scheduling, IndyFringe's annual theater festival rests on a firm foundation as it is poised to enter its 13th year this week.

Inspired by the Edinburgh, Scotland, Fringe and by so many subsequent staged bashes in North America, the well-established IndyFringe Live Theatre Festival runs from Thursday through Aug. 27 at eight sites in and around Massachusetts Avenue.

The evening scene along Mass Ave. five years ago during the festival.
Two of them are at IndyFringe headquarters at 719 E. St. Clair St. Besides, there are two each at Phoenix Theatre, 749 N. Park Ave., and Theatre on the Square, 627 Mass Ave., and one each at ComedySportz, 721 Mass Ave., and Firefighters Union Hall, 748 Mass Ave. Seventy-four shows will have had more than 400 performances by the end of the 11-day festival.

Despite director Pauline Moffat's disappointment with increased obstacles to foreign performers getting access to the U.S. recently, she enters organizational crunch time buoyed up by several factors: the assistance of George Wallace as associate director under a two-year grant, the increase to eight theaters with the addition of the Firefighters hall, and the addition of two late-night shows during the festival's second week (see page 15 of the program book for complete information).

"The level of professionalism has increased," Moffat said, looking back over her tenure as director since the beginning (2005). "People have liked being out of their comfort zones....It's remarkable that it thrives in a city like ours, a city that's smaller. But this is a community-driven Fringe."

Both Wallace, a veteran of the Orlando Fringe Festival,  and Moffat point with pride to a diversity of offerings that has simply sprung from the festival's first-come, first-served admissions process. For patrons, the usual rules apply: Doors are shut to each performance right at the listed performance time; shows run 45 minutes to 1 hour each. The buttons that used to provide access to all shows — once individual tickets were bought — are now available as souvenirs and as a kind of bonding ornament for attendees. Getting into a show no longer has a festival button as a prerequisite.
"One Man's Journey Through the Middle Ages" opens on the festival's opening night Thursday at the Indy Eleven Theatre, the IndyFringe building's second stage.

"There's no diversity lottery needed," Wallace said. "It's intrinsic," added Moffat, explaining: "DivaFest and OnyxFest have both helped promote diversity naturally." She was referring to two IndyFringe-sourced festivals of new plays — by women and African-Americans, respectively. Plays developed there, as well as others workshopped at the facility the rest of the year, have fed into the range of local options available to festival patrons for the past several years.

This year the balance between local and out-of-town shows at the festival is about 50-50.  The festival has adjusted the usual six-show schedule to allow out-of-towners to perform just three times during the festival's second week to expedite their tours.

Among his other duties, Wallace advises presenters on the "warnings" the schedule includes. They variously advise on recommended minimum age and notifications about violence, strobe lights, gunshots, and other features meriting caution. There is frequent mention, which anyone who picks up a 2017 festival booklet will notice, of "adult content" and "adult language."

"I advise them to be true and realistic," Wallace explained, "about both their warnings and how they identify their genre. When they are having to make that decision, they can get sure of what they are."

With so much focus on national politics these days, and given that many in the arts community are wary of how the Trump administration seems to oppose their values and can directly or indirectly affect them, do Moffat and Wallace expect a lot more political content across the board? The answer: Not so much this year.

Wallace said he expects to see that influence more prominent in 2018. By the time entry applications for the 2017 festival started to come in nearly a year ago, the national election had yet to be decided. The result, stunning to many people, has had particular resonance among artists of all sorts across the nation and the world.

Politics has become enmeshed in everything we do.  In the meantime, happy Fringing!

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Comes Pence, Nothing Can Be Done!

Difficulties come to mind about opposition to current Executive Branch leadership when the possible downfall of the Chief Executive is contemplated. Does the No. 2 man present any vulnerabilities? As with love, perhaps nothing can be done.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Sammy Miller and the Congregation: Everyone's invited to the party, but the interactivity is carefully managed

One of my favorite LPs in my early, pinch-penny years as a collector, was Duke Ellington's "Jazz Party." I played it over and
Sam Crittenden plays trombone with Sammy Miller and the Congregation.
over again, from the first track with a bunch of guest percussionists right through a rollicking, all-stops-out blues featuring Jimmy Rushing. In between came bursts of applause by the small studio audience; the record buyer felt in on the party, even as a distant, eager eavesdropper.

A jazz party is what a Sammy Miller and the Congregation show is all about. In this case, there wasn't anything like the cameo appearances (notably Dizzy Gillespie's) in the studio that individuated this particular recording in the Ellington discography. At the Jazz Kitchen Tuesday night, there was just the touring band itself, a sextet now more "theatrical" (trombonist Sam Crittenden's phrase) than in its first appearance locally at Birdy's, and the paying audience had been deliberately attracted. Its hearty response was part of the show.

It's important to note up front, however, that Sammy Miller and the Congregation choreograph their spontaneity elaborately. And the feedback they generate comes from the kind of outreach that's carefully planned — gestures, instrumental arrangements, vocal showcases, and movement up and down the  nightclub's stingy aisles.

Understandably, early Ellington figures into the band's repertoire. It showed up in a travesty of opera — a jazz opera, or "jopera," as drummer Miller said in his introduction. And during an episode focusing on "Creole Love Call," with trombonist Crittenden and tenor saxophonist Ben Flocks wooing each other, that out-among-the-crowd aspect got a risky workout.

The sound of the band is boisterous and draws stylistically on New Orleans jazz as well. The Congregation uses its outdoor voice, the way the Crescent City's bands did at the dawn of jazz. Looking ahead through jazz history, the poses and the mugging evoke such jazz entertainers as Louis Jordan, Louis Prima, Cab Calloway, and Fats Waller. And at the head of the line, sometimes undervalued for the value he placed on entertainment: Louis Armstrong.

Calming things down during a Congregation set is a relative matter: The lyrical heart of "What a Wonderful World" was there in the first encore, but so was a tempo shift into high gear. The second encore returned the Congregation to its rambunctious roots: "Liza Jane" featured recurrent staccato statements from the three horns (sans rhythm section) and an intense blues harmonica solo from the pianist, David Linard.

Fun needs to have a steady presence in jazz. Not everyone can, or should, present the kind of show Sammy Miller and the Congregation did Tuesday night here. But the cluck-clucks of censors in the jazz community sometimes get out of hand. I have two examples: When I needed to replace my copy of "Jazz Party," I was only able to get a tweaked version with all the applause trimmed away and a version of the oft-recorded "Satin Doll" unnecessarily inserted. Some party!

Furthermore, when I needed to get a CD of "Satchmo at Symphony Hall," one of my favorite LP purchases from my teen years, I found that the reissue producer had cut out the Velma Middleton vocals. True, she was never a first-rate jazz singer, but her bounteous voice and enthusiasm were part of the atmosphere of that now 70-year-old Boston concert, with solo turns in "Since I Fell for You" and "I Cried for You." And the band's accompaniments are great; they loved them some Velma!

Also dropped was her wonderful, clownish duet with Armstrong on "That's My Desire."

Suffice it to say that when Louis ad-libs "I feel the touch of your chops all wrapped up amongst mine" in place of the original line "I feel the touch of your lips pressing on mine," he forecast the approach and appeal of Sammy Miller and the Congregation.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Aaron Parks, an APA Cole Porter Fellow with a solid career, issues a new CD

"Find the Way" is an apt title (after an Ian Bernard song influenced, in the performance here, by Shirley Horn) for Aaron Parks' new trio recording. It's got an exploratory feel, with ample confirmation that the exploration has yielded genuine satisfaction.

Aaron Parks has delivered on the promise that marked his Cole Porter Fellowship.
Parks, a Seattle-raised pianist who first came to national attention as a precocious teenager via an NPR feature, will be familiar to Indianapolis jazz fans as the 2001 Cole Porter Fellow of the American Pianists Association. Among his accomplishments since then, he was a Terence Blanchard sideman for several years, contributing much to the trumpeter's band through his composing and keyboard skills.

On "Find the Way" (ECM), he works with bassist Ben Street and drummer Billy Hart, recorded in Pernes-les-Fontaines, France,  in October 2015. The mood is relaxed and thoughtful, but avoids dawdling, daydreaming or tempting the listener to turn its eight originals (plus "Find the Way") into background music.

The disc opens with the brooding "Adrift," a more focused piece of music than its title indicates. The theme features rising phrases that repeat an ascending pattern, which seems to keep the music afloat as well as adrift. It's quickly apparent that the imaginative drumming of Hart is a major sustaining factor.  There's an integrated feeling to the soloing that makes this trio feel like a gentler version of the Bad Plus. No one spoils the mood of the program with a display of chops.

A drum feature, "Hold Music," allows well-managed focus on the veteran Hart.  His adeptness on brushes superbly complements the tasty phrasing of Parks' piano on "Song for Sashou."   Adventurousness gets under this trio's elegant skin subtly: "The Storyteller" is a particularly winning example. "Alice," titled in tribute to Alice Coltrane, is both gritty and tinged with avant-garde suggestions in a school-of-hard-knocks manner.

"Find the Way" exhibits an original sense of melodic freshness and a keen awareness from all three players of how to make their evident rapport fascinating for listeners.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Tributes to a couple of entertainers with indelible auras: Dance Kaleidoscope's "Frere Jacques" and "Piaf: A Celebration"

Marie Kuhns, Stuart Coleman, and Missy Thompson in "Piaf Plus."
The expressive range of Edith Piaf and Jacques Brel in their songs makes responding in another art form to the words as well as to the music a particular challenge.

In a brief run at the Tarkington (Carmel's Center for the Performing Arts), Dance Kaleidoscope revives a couple of artistic director David Hochoy's most compact, mercurial recent pieces. Seen on Saturday night, "Piaf Plus" suited well a company with an intriguing blend of veteran expertise and continued receptivity toward new talent.

In "Piaf: A Celebration," which I first saw in 2011 when DK was dipping its skilled feet into the Indy Fringe Festival pool, what was especially remarkable was the masterly flow Hochoy imparted to a succession of songs associated with Piaf. The order of the songs served the choreography particularly well. The blend of humor, sentimentality, violence and panache seemed to hang improbably on a single thread. The mixture was beautifully supported by Cheryl Sparks' costumes, moving across a spectrum from goth severity to a kind of wary, formal joie-de-vivre.

A couple of duos stood out for me, indicating some of the bittersweet outlook on life with which Piaf struggled to keep bitterness from overwhelming her. Disease, addiction, love troubles — all shadowed the vulnerable Parisian, rooted in her mother's abandonment of her and subsequent upbringing in a brothel, on into an adulthood marked by three marriages and many love affairs. We saw this tension in Emily Dyson and Timothy June's dancing in "Hymne a l'Amour," and with a couple's internal rapport ratcheted up into violence and rejection in "Mon Dieu," danced with exquisite definition amid angular postures by Jillian Godwin and Cody Miley.

The whole suite is accurately labeled a celebration of the hallowed French singer. The flourishing movement that amplifies the main theme of dogged perseverance in the finale, "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien," convinces us that Piaf indeed regretted nothing. Leading up to that point, and prefaced by the international hit "La Vie en Rose," the fragile elegance of the troubled chanteuse moves to the fore. Ballroom dancing is evoked, but with the women's costumes signaling something more elemental than social graces. The punishing gestures of Apache dancing, explicit earlier in the suite, continued to hover.

There were subtle suggestions of Piaf's vocal quality — its hard edge, an intense vibrato, a penetrating timbre always on the verge of moaning — in the choreography. The predominance of numbers for the company projected a whole urban world out of personal pain. There was maniacal comic relief in "Bravo pour le Clown!," with life-size rag dolls amusingly tossed and manipulated in echo of the rough handling of a floppy real-life counterpart. Otherwise, the gloom-tinged poignancy of Piaf's art provided the keynote to Hochoy's inspiration.
Mariel Greenlee in "Frère Jacques"' "Marieke"

The emotional resonance of the show's first half, "Frère Jacques," was more manifest to the audience because the Belgian artist's songs were used in their English translations. The home-base audience is thus able to appreciate the wit and wordplay, as well as the scene-painting, of Jacques Brel as expressed in ten of his songs. Also enhanced by Laura E. Glover's lighting and Sparks' costumes, "Frère Jacques" occupies a more variegated milieu. The heart-tugging quality is more insistent and less veiled than with Piaf, yielding more buoyant dancing.

A subdued piece like "Desperate Ones," given measured restraint by Emily Dyson, Mariel Greenlee, and Caitlin Negron, provided a rare point of introspection. The social whirl is often the focus of Brel's tart observations, nicely fleshed out by "Marathon," an amusing evocation of the marathon dance-contest craze. The anthemic "If We Only Have Love" brought some sculptural steadiness at the end, following the dizzying acceleration of "Carousel." These were two company numbers that seem to compete in the memory with outstanding solos: Stuart Coleman's comic virtuosity with fantasy flair in "Jackie" and Greenlee's lofty, place-specific lament for lost love in "Marieke."

Both those showcases had the star quality that has helped sustain Dance Kaleidoscope over years of personnel changes, some of them rather sudden. Yet the bedrock of that star quality continues to be the company itself, with its storehouse of ensemble richness gathered and nurtured by its artistic director.

[Photos by Freddie Kelvin and Chris Crawl]

Friday, August 4, 2017

The joy of hunger artistry: The film 'Dunkirk' and a jazz duo's account of 'Left Alone'

"Metaphors for art as an activity tend to center upon a particular place, where a heightened sense of presence can manifest itself."
     — Harold Bloom, "A Map of Misreading"

"Shepp's is a precarious style; his balance of elements is fragile."
      — John Litweiler, "The Freedom Principle"
All eyes on peril: British soldiers watch the  skies while awaiting evacuation.

" one could produce first-hand evidence that the fast had really been rigorous and continuous; only the artist himself could know that; he was therefore bound to be the sole completely satisfied spectator of his own fast."
        — Franz Kafka, "The Hunger Artist"

Within two days this week, unplanned encounters with two works of art got me wondering how we take them in when the process feels similar to how we might describe a mesmerizing speaker: that we were "hanging on his [her] every word"  — that uncanny absorption of cumulative detail that's unquestioning and fully committed from start to finish.

What can account for thorough immersion in a work of art, with no flagging of interest, or without even a fleeting notion of  any analysis or second thoughts about the experience until afterward? What spellbound me through nearly back-to-back experiences of the movie "Dunkirk" and a jazz track hidden in a recorded CD anthology I took off a shelf at home on a whim?

Sometimes thorough immersion stems from the creative artist's apparent decision to fuse subject matter and treatment, to minimize contrast, even to risk wearying the attention and eventually "losing" the receiver. Such a work of art's strength paradoxically has to emerge from its chosen limitations, its flirtation with imaginative weakness, even stasis.

How does this happen? It starts with the artistic address to our attention being daringly focused, edge-to-edge like an Abstract Expressionist canvas, concentrated on providing one overwhelming impression. It doesn't leave any gaps for us to fill in or places to seek relief or catch our breath.
Cover art of 1978 recording: Archie Shepp and Dollar Brand

Built into most artistic products is the notion that some variety or respite from the dominant material or style  keeps the alertness level high. Providing contrast weighs into an artist's sense of duty toward the experience he intends to turn into a work of art. We associate artistic significance with shifts of perspective that throw its main argument into high relief.

But that's not the way of  Christopher Nolan in his cinematic treatment of the daring evacuation of thousands of British soldiers to safety from a beleaguered enclave in Dunkirk, France, in 1940.

And it's not the way of saxophonist Archie Shepp, together with the South African pianist Dollar Brand (Abdullah Ibrahim), recorded in Japan in 1978,  playing a song by Billie Holiday and Mal Waldron called "Left Alone."

Neither one is startlingly long for its genre, so I'm not finding it remarkable that works of these respective lengths (1 hour, 46 minutes for "Dunkirk"; 7 minutes, 50 seconds for "Left Alone") exerted such a relentless hold on me.

Nolan has been acclaimed for his war-movie innovations in making the ordinariness of fear and self-preservation surmount the engagement in conflict for which soldiers are trained. The historic situation makes such a choice almost the only option; the task then is to fill out the "trap" scenario with imagery — visual and auditory — and the often improvised dealing with the unbearably tense situation. The RAF pilots attempt to beat back German attacks in the sky; that's contrasted with the valiantly manned little boats assembled to cross the English Channel and load up soldiers for removal to safety back home. The scenario is completed with focus on the waiting soldiers, sometimes moved to undertake desperate measures, like the small group that waits, hidden, for the tide to take a stranded ship out into the water.

Nolan intercuts among the arenas of action abruptly, with the effect of blending the three planes of action into one story of desperation and heroism. Knitting everything together is an overwhelming parade of war sounds and sights. "A  heightened sense of presence" in a particular place quickly overwhelms the viewer. An ambush on deserted town streets opens the film. It is hardly an introduction; the fury of movement and the shattering gunfire noise plunge the viewer into 100 minutes of barely varied chaos.

Similarly, Shepp and Brand discard the introductory phrases with which jazzmen often open their interpretation of ballads, as slow, lyrical songs are called. They plunge right into the tune, and never waver from repeating or paraphrasing it. Brand's musical background and influences from his native South Africa lend a thoughtfulness to his interpretations that American musicians access with difficulty. Shepp, well past his most revolutionary playing by the time he recorded "Left Alone" in 1978, was able to assemble almost achingly vulnerable ballad interpretations out of what seem to be fragments — until you recognize how well they cohere. Litweiler's assessment of Shepp's "fragility" can seem negative until the listener realizes, taking "Left Alone" as a test case,  that such a quality is a settled stance that over time  emerges as an assertion of strength. The saxophonist maintains it in tandem with the pianist, who even in his solo hardly departs from the laconic understatement of his duo playing.

Similarly, though no one can mistake Nolan's virtuosity for fragility, the filmmaker focuses on warfare from the ground up, never leaving the emotional effect of being under deadly assault and constantly doubtful of survival. He practically wallows in obsession with this theme. "The balance of elements" that Litweiler cites in Shepp's style is also fundamental to Nolan's filmmaking. The balance is daringly sustained by never varying much from the sensory overload of "Dunkirk"'s storytelling. Any variation, even a rare suggestion of calm, is shot through with the impact of this overload. One of the private boats rescues a shell-shocked sailor; the psychologically fraught passenger immediately lends Bloom's "heightened sense of presence" to how we process Dunkirk, a "particular place" we are meant to associate with noisy horror and death. We want to escape on a visceral level, yet the movie unfailingly draws us in and holds us there, just as surely as the modest vessel carries the eventually menacing sailor to the French shore to carry out its mission.

The most moving of these counter-chaos touches comes toward the end, as the film returns again and again to the slow noiseless gliding of an RAF Spitfire, out of fuel, onto the beach at Dunkirk and the pilot's inevitable capture. The silence of this downward flight is deafening, less a contrast to than a confirmation of war's maelstrom of destruction. Similarly, the spaces that Brand and Shepp leave in their account of "Left Alone" help define their concentration on the melody. Splashes of ornamentation, sudden accents, and great interval leaps somehow reinforce their steady focus on the song's pathos.

Finding pleasure in art is an unassailable benefit of experiencing it. But it is never the whole story. The more a work fascinates us, the more we may realize the uncomfortable distance between ourselves and the artist. When a work won't let go of its initial grab for our attention, but uses it to exert a total grip to the very end, we may be tempted to ask with irritation: "Impressive — but can't you give us something else too?"

With Nolan's "Dunkirk" and Shepp/Brand's "Left Alone," we are retrospectively lost in admiration that the obsessive style is not abandoned. In the film, for instance, there is at the end no cutaway to Churchill's rallying speech about "fighting them on the beaches," etc. — no actor plays Churchill in cameo, no voiceover intrudes. Instead, on a train heading home, one of the rescued soldiers reads to a comrade part of the speech from a newspaper. Similarly, there is no climax in "Left Alone" — a hint of an ascending cry from Shepp's horn quickly subsides. The duo eases ever so slightly, and the pianist rounds everything off, with unresolved harmonies that are neither a fade-out nor an expressive compromise, but rather a seal on an extraordinary vision.

In Franz Kafka's great story "The Hunger Artist," the interest of the audience in the sustained public fast of the title character inevitably is fed by the hope to catch him cheating. Spectators' admiration is corrupted by their expectation of being fooled. Of art that has the ability to focus so much more than life, we may wonder: Do you really mean this? Why aren't you interested in variety? When you narrow your focus so, are you perhaps imaginatively impoverished?

But the well-fed, uncaged audience can never be as focused as the confined hunger artist. That is why complete satisfaction in his/her achievement is reserved for the artist. It seems unfair, but where mastery is involved, such satisfaction is what allows artists to double down on their material. As Kafka suggests just after the sentence I quote above, the payoff even makes their self-imposed limitations feel easy to them. Such uncanny confidence — a surprising level of comfort — can be transferable, however briefly, to us.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Indianapolis Shakespeare Company, sporting a new name and fine prospects, puts "As You Like It" on at White River State Park

"If music be the food of love, play on," begins a famous comedy of Shakespeare's, not the one the Indianapolis Shakespeare Company (IndyShakes) is presenting this weekend at White River State Park. "Twelfth Night" has the subtitle "What You Will," a hint that the playwright is toying with the same mood of caprice and multivalence more conspicuously signaled by  "As You Like It," the company's 2017 production.

And the band played on: The songs were peppy, but challenged the action.
The first full performance of the show came Friday night, Thursday's having been cut short by a cloudburst near the end of the first act; the run concludes tonight. Nature's capriciousness held off for the actual opening night under sunny skies. Orsino's line about music and love — and the vehicle of food that transports us into a world of ungovernable appetites — came to mind as the primacy of love in "As You Like It" was both enhanced and challenged by music.

Indeed, this production comes close to being music-crammed, to adapt an image the heroine Rosalind uses at the approach of the courtier Le Beau, "with his mouth full of news," she rightly guesses. She's the daughter of the duchy's rightful ruler, in exile in the Forest of Arden, and the inseparable friend of the usurping Duke Frederick's daughter, Celia. Perhaps the production's stepped-up focus on music makes the show more marketable, to borrow Celia's observation on the benefit of being news-crammed.

Ramon Hutchins' full-throated performances of the show's songs, accompanied compatibly by a rootsy onstage band, open and close the show. As Lord Amiens, Hutchins initially pumps up the crowd and launches the intermittent songfest, only to be cruelly checked by black-shirted ruffians in service to the usurping Duke Frederick, in Ben Tebbe's performance a vicious control freak obsessed with loyalty (why does that description feel so familiar?).

The opposition between the corrupt court and the Forest of Arden, the arena of escape where most of the action takes place, is thus brilliantly set forth in an imaginative stroke of theater. Overlaying song so thoroughly on the last scene, however, deprives the play's conclusion of an old-fashioned ceremoniousness. Shakespeare's carefully engineered happy ending becomes mainly an occasion to party. Probably Ryan Artzberger, a well-regarded actor and IndyShakes member making his debut as a director, found the symbolic figure of Hymen, who helps tie up various knots at the end, too dated.

That feeling also may have prompted the cutting of the Epilogue, which gives Rosalind her last display of humanity and gentle learning, imparting lessons in love that she has mastered over the course of the play. Understanding that almost all Shakespeare, with the possible exception of "Macbeth," undergoes trimming in modern productions, I still found some of the cuts regrettable. For instance, and at the risk of sounding all English-majory, there is a plethora of elaborate, balanced sentences and laboriously extruded conceits that characterize the language of "As You Like It." The style is prevalent in the prose romance from which Shakespeare drew his story, Thomas Lodge's "Rosalynde," which in turn reflected the gaudy "Euphues" by John Lyly, whose excess of highly ornamented prose enjoyed a vogue among word-drunk Elizabethans.

Rosalind, the heroine, the clown Touchstone, and the studious melancholic Jaques all indulge in euphuistic fancies, some of
Rosalind (as the youth Ganymede) keeps an eye on her pupil, Orlando.
which are lopped here.  Fortunately, traces of the style remain in this production: I loved how Jaddy Ciucci's Touchstone ends a sinuous colloquy with Rosalind and Celia about honor and swearing oaths with a simulated mic drop. (Another modern touch that worked well was to have the wrestling match between the Duke's favorite, Charles, and the fraternally abused Orlando carried out in a mock video-game format.)

Speaking of Orlando, there's no reason to put off further discussion of this production's success in giving so much vitality to the love-crammed story at its center. Grant Niezgodski gave a well-balanced interpretation of the hero, destined from an early meeting with Rosalind (placed around that wrestling bout) to be the love of her life. He projected the energy and good-heartedness the role requires. Though in his Arden exile Orlando is quite manipulated by Rosalind's romantic designs (surely he must sense she's not the young swain she pretends to be), Niezgodski never seemed like her unwitting plaything.

Country matters; Touchstone (Jaddy Ciucci) woos Audrey (Joanna Bennett)
That's vital in order to make an Orlando worthy of such an intelligent woman's love. It's hard to resist finding Rosalind so huge a Shakespearean triumph that no one else in "As You Like It" seems to matter. After all, there are other love affairs that need to come out well, and there's the political context that sets the whole court-and-country contrast essential to this play. Phebe (Claire Wilcher) must be arm-twisted to accept the romantic intensity of Sylvius (Michael Hosp, doubling wonderfully as the faithful servant Adam), the acerbic Touchstone has to find suitable an alliance with the country wench Audrey (Joanna Bennett), and the repentant, once-cruel brother Oliver (Peter Scharbrough) must see the excellence in all respects of Celia (Sarah Hunter, who solidly conveyed Celia's devotion to Rosalind).

But "As You Like It" is Rosalind's play; she dominates its small but still diffuse scale the way John Falstaff dominates the kingdom-defining "Henry IV" plays. Among Shakespeare's women, only Cleopatra has comparably colossal stature. Who can help being won over by her? She's likable from the beginning, and remains so, despite an episode of meanness when she tries to redirect Phebe's affections.

This production has a strong, winning portrayal of Rosalind by Lauren Briggeman. Her vocal command ranges from tremulous enthrallment as she falls instantly in love with Orlando, through vigorous upbraiding of Duke Frederick as he exiles her, to the credible low timbre she projects in her Arden disguise as a man. Rosalind is learning about love even as she exercises mastery over its intricacies, and Briggeman charmingly sustained that difficult balance.

That's why I would like to have heard her whole speech that ends with the marvelous rhetorical flourish: "Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love."  The two examples Rosalind gives before this conclusion illustrate her good education as well as providing support for her argument. Despite their absence here, the line stunningly turns the certainty of death into something that happens "from time to time," and the decay associated with it into a peculiar phenomenon separate from and inferior to love. Rosalind lives by this paradox, by love's supremacy and its right to triumph over all odds. Seeing Rosalind in bridal dress in the last scene brings me close to tears every time, whether attending a performance or reading the play. She has learned so much, and she has taught everybody.

Two other performances stand out for me in this production: Bill Simmons, in broad-brimmed hat and loose summertime clothing as the banished Duke Senior, glides about the stage, spreading his arms as he extols the virtues of life in the forest. His sententious praise is lofted in life-affirming, motivational-speaker tones. The portrayal was just fatuous enough to be delightful without caricature. He reminded me of a typical interview guest on Krista Tippett's "On Being."

I must also mention Josh Coomer's spot-on rendering of Jaques, a lord attending Duke Senior who takes his cue from exile to become a figure of well-rehearsed melancholy, finding every human condition lamentable. Jaques' melancholy is a pose, embedded in a man feeling rootless in rusticity and casting about for a way to distinguish himself in inhospitable surroundings. To represent someone stuffed with attitudes without overacting is no small achievement, and Coomer handled it with aplomb. The touch of satire in his noble set-piece, the "seven ages of man" speech, helped it be the kind of highlight it's supposed to be.

[Photos by Julie Curry]

Thursday, July 27, 2017

The President Is Getting Stranger: You knew that, but here's a song to sum it up, with the evidence of his Boy Scout Jamboree oration

Sean Imboden's burgeoning big band moves indoors for its second-ever engagement

No cabin fever: Sean Imboden got good results from  his big-band outing.
Scheduling rehearsals for a newly-formed big band whose members necessarily have day jobs is just one of the threats to a large jazz ensemble's viability.

However long it stays together with a stable personnel list, the Sean Imboden Big Band made an exciting indoor debut — and gave cause for celebration — Wednesday night at the Jazz Kitchen.

The leader, an Indianapolis native schooled in his specialties at Indiana University and Queens College in New York, guided the 17-piece band (counting the leader's occasional turns on saxophones) in compositions and arrangements he's written over the past several years — plus those of a trumpet-playing friend, Matt Riggen, who also conducted. The band had its first public appearance earlier this summer under damp conditions in Broad Ripple Park.

The first Jazz Kitchen set was loaded with promise. The blend took a while to jell, in part because realizing the sound embedded in the charts is a mixing challenge. Imboden's writing features a lot of independence among the horn sections — reeds, trumpets, trombones — and sudden rhythm-section episodes and dips in intensity. In musical terms, the result seemed somewhere in between a Rubik's cube and an M.C. Escher print. By the second set, just about everything snapped into place, and the musicians were surefooted climbing Escher-like stairways.

Such intricacy may sound difficult for the average listener to "solve," but usually that was not the case. If it was hard sometimes for a solo to stand out against a busy background, at least the intended effect was transparent. That was true  particularly when the soloist's individuality asserted itself in the texture. It's sufficient to bring forward the example of "Horizon," the second piece played, with distinctive statements by trombonist Freddie Mendoza and tenor saxophonist Sophie Faught (welcome back, Sophie!). In a few other places, saxophonist Rob Dixon rode the tide handily. His two-bar exchanges with alto saxophonist Rich Cohen during Joe Henderson's "Inner Urge" gave the nimble arrangement particular verve.

Section work acquired more and more polish in the second set. Pinpoint sax coordination was displayed in Imboden's "Around the Corner," with which the band opened after the break. Riggen's lush, thoughtful "Silent Aspect" followed in such a way as to emphasize how well the members listen to each other in close-order drill. The translucent textures were an improvement on Riggen's oddly cluttered borrowing from the Sacred Harp tradition, "Idumea," with Imboden soloing on soprano sax, warming up as he went along. Kudos, however, for Riggen's sprightly take on Charlie Parker's "Anthropology."

Each set ended with an untitled Imboden blues, giving the opportunity for the band's less frequent soloists to state cases for themselves. The rhythm section (Evan Main, piano; Nick Tucker, bass; Ben Lumsdaine, drums) was stellar interacting with such a variety of players in both pieces. Tucker's comping had so much zing, tonal focus, and variety that even I might sound OK in a blues chorus or two with him behind me. (No, I won't accept the challenge.)

Few obvious shortcomings in the band popped up over the three hours. The reeds need to be careful about intonation when they are called upon to pick up clarinets. And the mellow trumpet section, which sounded particularly at home when flugelhorns were employed, could now and then benefit from a lead player on the order of the Buselli-Wallarab orchestra's Joey Tartell — not a screamer like Ellington's Cat Anderson, but someone who can ride those strutting or majestic crests with authority. There were signs of such a player in the final blues, with a rare solo by Lexie Signor.

Imboden (and Riggen) deserve gratitude for exploring subtler colors, for moving rhythms and tone colors around, and for offering sufficient hints that this band has reserves of power it doesn't need to overexploit. But, first and foremost, that such an ensemble even exists on the scene with lots of good new material and capable people to deliver it merits praise.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Hot buttons and tender buttons: 'Human Rites' examines tissue issues (and more) in Phoenix world premiere

Aristotle described it a couple of millennia ago: the point in the drama where everything reverses suddenly. The device makes for a hairpin turn in "Human Rites" as a pitched verbal battle between a black American university dean and a white professor shifts to a drastic new level with the entrance of a third character, a brilliant graduate student from Sierra Leone.

Michaela and Alan: Two academics at vigorous cross purposes.
Seth Rozin's "Human Rites" needs this peripeteia, as the Greek philosopher described it, giving the example of the worst possible news King Oedipus could get in the tragedy that has made his name and fate immortal. Rozin's long one-act is receiving its world premiere this weekend to conclude Phoenix Theatre's 2016-17 season. Performances continue weekends through Aug. 13.

Seen Friday night on the intimate Basile Stage, the drama benefits from the audience's closeness to the action. With a play so heavily focused on issues, the interpersonal conflict behind an academic set-to needs to be proved upon our pulses.

The audience is seated on three sides of a marvelous Bernie Killian set representing the dean's office. Michaela is a matronly, self-possessed academic well-positioned to deliver some sort of payback to Alan, a professor of cultural psychology. She broke off an affair with him years ago, and finds herself newly provoked by his study of African women's attitudes toward genital circumcision in four countries.

In the fraught atmosphere of today's higher education, unanimous class objections to the professor's findings of support for the ritual practice must be answered. The dean is sympathetic to the students' viewpoint; he, of course, is fiercely defensive of a paper intended to open his forthcoming book. Nothing must come between a professor and his book, as many of us well know.

Lydia confronts Alan with the limitations of his intellectual grasp.
Rob Johansen and Milicent Wright, two veteran Indianapolis actors who never seem to have an offhand moment onstage, are perfect choices for the roles of Alan and Michaela. They are sturdy and intense in voice and movement throughout. They are feisty when confident, and put equal energy into moments when their characters' confidence flags. A wise theater teacher of international reputation, Patsy Rodenburg, has written about an actor's need for "athletic thinking."  Johansen and Wright display that in abundance.

The audience feels the intensity from Alan's fidgety pacing in Michaela's office as he waits for her to finish talking just outside with a young woman he doesn't know. That woman, Lydia, will turn out to introduce "Human Rites"' peripeteia. She enters the scene as Michaela's intended ally, under recruitment to overlay Alan's study with results that will presumably show that the practice of female genital mutilation (as its opponents invariably call it) is feared and resented as an invasive exercise of patriarchy, supported by ignorance and cultural backwardness.

Passionately enacted by Paeton Chavis, speaking with an apparently flawless African accent, Lydia expresses a worldview that throws that of her academic superiors into a cocked hat. As different as her quarreling elders are from each other, they turn out to be wearing the same set of Eurocentric blinders. How that plays out cannot be revealed here. The argument goes over a cultural landscape marked by polarities: Are women subject to the ritual shamed or enlightened? Does the practice involve sacrificing dignity or pleasure? Are there degrees of shame and enlightenment as a result? A spectrum of dignity and pleasure?

In less able hands, the conflict laid out before Lydia's entrance could have hit the stage like a lengthy version of one of those concise essay pairs at the top of a USA Today op-ed page, arguing opposite sides of a particular issue. Rozin always presents the audience with more than a wordy debate — even though the topic lies at the crux of gender identity, empowerment, and sexual politics. Scoring rhetorical points goes only so far, however, in presenting characters onstage.

Thus, emotions and the professional amour-propre of Alan and Michaela are tangled up in the legacy of their old romance. Now: ashes or embers? Their intellectual and career stature can't be separated from that experience. Nor can Lydia's independent academic ambitions be accounted for within Michaela's and Alan's frames of reference, as is quite clear right up through the play's zinger of a last line. Rozin keeps his duty as a dramatist uppermost, even as the polemical stew simmers.

The usual finely woven mesh of the Phoenix production team sustains and enlivens the three-way conflict at every point. Rozin, Jadhawani, and the able cast have fleshed out a topic that inevitably makes the political personal. We need the kind of discussions "Human Rites" embodies.

A recent poll showed that an alarming portion of the electorate believes that higher education's effect on American society is negative. I hope most people continue to disagree, because what embroils the academy — some of it messy and self-defeating —  is often essential to a clearer understanding of the world and one another. If we ever reject the challenge of arriving at that understanding, we will be in unimaginable trouble. And that's when colleges and universities will have decisively failed and merited our disdain.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Friday, July 21, 2017

A new kind of magic for 'The Magic Flute' in Cincinnati Opera Summer Festival production

There is a world elsewhere in "Die Zauberflöte," and there always has been. It is not Coriolanus' world of bitter self-exile, but a bright place of earned happiness in which all the sorrows of worthy people are wiped away.

The opera, the last work of Wolfgang Mozart's to be staged in his lifetime, adapts readily to an emphasis on show and spectacle as it carries its ethical message to a triumphant conclusion.  Cincinnati Opera has done well to bring this particular world elsewhere to regional audiences through Sunday.

Many far-flung forces, both creative and technical, came together to create "The Magic Flute" (as it's best-known in Anglophone countries) in the form it's taking this weekend at the Aronoff Center for the Arts in Cincinnati. The production, which originated at the Komische Oper Berlin, has co-production credits from Los Angeles Opera (costumes) and Minnesota Opera (set construction).

The creative team was put together by Barrie Kosky, artistic director of the German company, with the live-performance-and-animation co-creators of 1927, a British firm specializing in film/stage projects.

Thursday night's performance showed immediately the advantage of removing Emanuel Schikaneder's imaginative Zauberoper libretto entirely from naturalism. We don't have to excuse the hero Tamino's collapse in fear at the attack of some lumbering monster cobbled out of cloth and wire in the scene shop. That's often the audience's first impression.

I don't want to belittle the craft of costume design, but in this show we have instead a truly scary image: a gargantuan cinematic devourer of everything in its path from the get-go. And though Tamino's frantic attempts to escape the monster have the comical overlay of the "undercranking" practiced by early movie cameramen to speed up natural movement, the first scene communicates genuine peril. We are prepared to accept Tamino as a romantic hero, a person capable of growth in moral stature under the right guidance. He is rescued by the haughty yet helpful Three Ladies, whose recurring appearances are always delightful, despite their service to the "wrong" side in this opera.

Throughout this production, the "world elsewhere" concocted by 1927 and the Komische Opera Berlin comes into its own as an arena for comedy, true love, and moral development. The luxuriant phantasmagoria still manages to support those themes. The evocation of silent film just alluded to is pervasive. There's the circular spotlighting that expands and contracts, used very effectively to direct our attention to Tamino, his much-beset girlfriend and ally Pamina, and other main characters, chiefly the prince's bird-catching companion Papageno. There are scenes when the live action is flecked with the flaws of early celluloid films, and — most crucial to the flow of the opera — the device of intertitles used to represent dialogue.

The encapsulated lovers, Pamina and Tamino, undergo trials supervised by Sarastro.
That particular adaptation of a silent-film convention avoids the chore of training non-German singers to speak German text naturally. It also allows for telegraphing emotions and verbal interaction, just as the silent films did. The result of abundant trimming is some loss of Schikaneder's wit and conversational give-and-take. The streamlining makes sense, but we lose a firm sense of the characters in dialogue, starting with the long getting-acquainted exchange of Tamino and Papageno. It means that we must shrug and accept the unlikely companionship of the high-minded prince and the birdcatcher's slightly goofy ordinariness without seeing what engenders it.

In any event, those two roles were well sung by Aaron Blake and Rodion Pogossov, respectively. Papageno has some physical comedy to convey in this show, and Pogossov does that admirably, especially late in the second act when he finally gets the girl of his dreams, Papagena, sung sassily by Jasmine Habersham.

What we first see in "The Magic Flute": Tamino attempts to outrun a pursuing monster.
Kim-Lillian Strebel is Pamina, a character modeled in appearance here after silent-film star Louise Brooks (as noted by Kosky in the program booklet). Her dark page-boy cut provides the model for all the women in the chorus, whom we see at length in the finale, where the formally dressed men (in other scenes top-hatted) join them in praise of Sarastro, high priest of Isis and Osiris and designer of the ritual trials through which Tamino and Pamina must pass, displaying the virtues of patience, wisdom, virtue, and strength (the German equivalents of which pop up on the screen several times).

Strebel displayed a soprano of high luster and sustained power in the second-act aria, "Ach, ich's fuhl's," which ennobled the hurt that Pamina feels at Tamino's mandated lack of responsiveness to her. Suddenly, we are aware of Pamina's worthiness to be Tamino's fully entitled companion in a set of trials that has tended to underline a male-only path to enlightenment. Since the opera finally gives the couple a blessing that partly contradicts the Masonic progress outlined, Strebel's strength in this one aria struck me as crucial to the production's success.

One of the great triumphs of what 1927 brought to Kosky's interpretation is the ability to fill the stage picture while positioning singers at different heights. This show literally gives another dimension to stage direction, which  almost always follows a horizontal plane. The Queen of the Night is often elevated somewhat, and Jeni Houser was here, but to especially spectacular effect, encased in a spider's body with eight huge twitching legs extending down to the floor. Her singing was rather  compromised acoustically as a result, but the evil queen's famous high notes rang out, and the vocal agility was intact.

I boggled at some of the imagery, barely resisting the temptation to slap symbolism onto everything I saw. I think sometimes animator Paul Barritt was just having fun. Some of the animal suggestions were at least totemic, I guess, such as the monkeys in the "trial" parade. But why does Papageno apparently catch only owls? Maybe that's the one kind of bird his patroness, the Queen of the Night, favors. Why are Pamina and Tamino, in a trio with Sarastro aloft, kept apart by the swinging pendulum of a large clock? I'm working on that, though I think I understand why the production designers didn't want literal, or even approximate, glockenspiel, pan pipes, and flute in view, despite repeated references to those magical or signature instruments.

The constant shimmer and shake of the show's movement rested upon visual styles that suggested both Victorian steampunk and Dr. Seuss. The danger in this novel kind of Gesamtkunstwerk is that what you see can overwhelm what you hear. The trials by fire and water were wonderfully realized. So was the eye-popping descent of Tarmino and the two Armored Men down a sort of mine shaft into the bowels of the earth.

But I was particularly disturbed by the large peeping, blinking eyes, visible as if through gashes in a black wall, during Sarastro's great aria "In diesen heil'gen Hallen." With effort I concentrated on how well Tom McNichols was singing it. As for the animated winged nymph  — nude, including a pubic patch — who at one point flits over the young lovers' heads, it suddenly became difficult to focus on the purity of their mutual devotion.

Cbristopher Allen conducted, and if I was after purity, I got plenty in a magnificent reading of the overture by the orchestra.
As for the rest, I admit I was transported — the production's clear intent. It presents indeed a world elsewhere, not a half-hearted or rote attempt to fashion one merely in the spirit of Mozart and Schikaneder. In the 21st century, there are other spirits to be served, after all. This production insists: Dream on!

[Photos by Philip Groshong]

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Into the discomfort zone: 'Song from the Uproar' muses on a turn-of-the-20th-century Swiss woman's self-exile to Algeria

Isabelle (Abigail Fischer) is swept up in Sufi mysticism in "100 Names for God," a scene in "Song from the Uproar."
Cultural consciousness of female self-fulfillment is at a fever pitch nowadays, but it was an extraordinary, fraught experience for our grandmothers and great-grandmothers, exercised only fitfully and at great risk.

When put in the context of opera, a brave woman's story pushes back against the legacy of female heroines both vulnerable and victimized, with occasional outbursts of heroism, slanted toward maleness: Beethoven's Fidelio has to be a man for the sake of rescuing a man.

Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek have an exceptional tale to tell in examining "the lives and deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt," to quote the subtitle of "Song from the Uproar." The one-act opera opened Monday night in a Cincinnati Opera production in collaboration with concert:nova, a local chamber-music organization.

The unusual plurals in the subtitle signal the fragmentary nature of Eberhardt's bizarre, truncated path (1877-1904). Stunned by the deaths of three close family members when she was 21, she departed Switzerland alone, traveling to Algeria. She dressed as a man, became a Sufi Muslim, and fell in love with an Algerian soldier. The love affair soured, a suicide pact fizzled, she survived an assassination attempt unrelated to the liaison, and at 27 she succumbed in a desert flash flood. The waterlogged journals she kept survived. From that fragmentary personal record, Vavrek fashioned a libretto, assisted by Mazzoli, the composer.

In concentrated form, then, Eberhardt seems to have lived a series of lives and deaths. The salient facts of her short time on earth almost defeat the very idea of coherent narrative.  There is no plot to "Song From the Uproar." In a preconcert talk, Mazzoli described it as a kind of fever-dream.

The contents of the dream are voiced mainly by drifting Eberhardt monologues, with vocal support from five singers. Three dancers from Cincinnati Ballet flesh out Isabelle's memories and imaginings. Under the direction of Marco Pelle, the cast as a whole is in constant movement in and around diaphanous white cloth panels (sometimes altered by projected images) suspended from high above in the black-box environs of the Fifth Third Bank Theater of the Aronoff Center for the Arts. The scenic design's other main feature is a large, mottled, sun-baked tree trunk with stubby branches, a reminder of nature's harshness in the desert climate.

As Isabelle Eberhardt, Abigail Fischer is the cynosure of the show. Displaying a mezzo-soprano of both versatile warmth and metallic sheen, Fischer was also a spectacular actor. Moving with the ease and restlessness of the adventuress she portrays, she  reflected the unquenchable grief that drove Isabelle from everything familiar to her toward an unknown world both exhilarating and threatening. The grief and anxiety return and intensify; the joys are more fleeting.

The events summarized above, as transmuted by the opera's creators, require of the show's star both physical and vocal flexibility and the capacity to convey authenticity in every gesture and facial expression. Thomas C. Hase's lighting puts a premium on that ability, and Fischer's was outstanding.

Keitaro Harada conducted, with the band off to the side of the stage opposite the tree. The instrumentation, supplemented by electronics, is flute, clarinet, piano, electric guitar and double bass. Coordination seemed to be flawless, and the brilliance of the scoring indelibly served the story and the vocal line, which the unnamed and largely symbolic characters performed in choral fashion by two sopranos, alto, tenor, and baritone.

Isabelle in focus, observed from a desert tree.
Mazzoli displays in "Song From the Uproar" a personal voice, free of the need to evoke styles connected to the opera's time and place. A partial exception is "Chanson," with its buzzing evocation of old cafe music and vernacular dance that suits some of the erotic byplay of that scene of dissipation and the mixed feelings that often wash over drunks.

The suicide pact with her Algerian lover and her attempted assassination by a religious fanatic were vividly staged. An episode of interaction with the female dancer seems to be symbolic of Isabelle's rapture at the exotic milieu she has entered into out of desperation. I see it as indicating her embrace of Algerians and Muslims more than a same-sex liaison, but perhaps I'm mistaken. It was a little unclear to me how consistent Isabelle's disguise as a man was supposed to be.

Mazzoli's score lends itself to a smooth interplay between operatic focus and textures that are almost like underscoring. There is a very effective suggestion of a diva's big aria in "Mektoub (It Is Written) Part Two," where Isabelle is convulsed anew by despair after her strenuously adopted life has collapsed. "O capsized heart" reprises an earlier outcry, and it has that well-upholstered feeling, with substantial choral and ensemble support, of a climactic aria.

As for the sound palette of the work, the electric guitar sports its predictably individualized voice, but its fusion with conventional classical instruments sounds complete and natural. It also represents a bridge in tone color to the prerecorded parts of the score, including Isabelle's voice, which makes the opera's subdued conclusion so moving.

The one piece of Mazzoli's I knew before "Song from the Uproar" was "Still Life With Avalanche," a nonvocal piece commissioned by eighth blackbird. The common thread I find admirable is her fresh way of conveying emotion in structurally cohesive ways, so that a steady pulse and dense harmonies are complemented by exuberant melodies and vigorous gestures in an unhackneyed manner. The fever-dream image — suggesting the overlay of memories upon daily experience —  is fully realized by the boldness, apparent spontaneity, and clarity of the music. The drifting down of pages representing Isabelle's journal near the end is the perfect visual complement to the marvels of Mazzoli's composition: Patterns seem to emerge from life's accidents, and make sense once they can be truly observed and appropriately paced.

[Photos by Philip Groshong]

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Without a song: Infusion Baroque visits from Montreal to acquaint Early Music Festival audience with Italian instrumental music

It's more than a ghostly influence — the Italian language that's shot through classical-music lingo — even though just about
Infusion Baroque of Montreal opened the festival's final weekend.
everyone thinks of the Austro-German repertoire as central to concert life.

"Allegro," "andante" — all those tempo and expression directions in the scores — and of course two of the most common types of classical pieces, the sonata and the concerto, fly the Italian flag. Ditto with instrument technology, particularly of strings, that represents the gold standard to this day: Stradivari, Amati, Guarneri. Oh, and the musical scale note names. Where does it end?

The prominence of Italian reflects the fact that not only opera, but also instrumental music, owes much of its origin and development to musical ingenuity on the boot-shaped European peninsula. This early, enduring power was reflected in "An Italian Voyage," the program that Infusion Baroque presented to open the final weekend of the 2017 Indianapolis Early Music Festival.

Arcangelo Corelli is the composer who received the tradition of Renaissance ensemble music as heritage and transformed it into genres that modernized the sonata and established the concerto. Infusion Baroque, a quartet from Montreal, divided "An Italian Voyage" into the first half of the 17th century and from its latter half into the 18th — roughly matching Corelli's dates (1653-1713) and influence. (A misprint on the festival booklet's main program page confuses this crucial division, giving Corelli the same dates as his eminent, well-traveled pupil Francesco Geminiani (1687-1762). The program notes get it right).

Infusion Baroque in performance Friday evening at Indiana History Center.
Despite the traces of Italian over the breadth of classical music, today's retrospective focus is usually on opera, devised in Italy around 1600 and advanced so conclusively by one man, Claudio Monteverdi, that Richard Taruskin, in the Oxford History of Western Music, titles a chapter with the quip, "Opera from Monteverdi to Monteverdi."  Italian librettists helped seal the deal for Italian-language opera, which became the standard-bearer for Italian music seemingly for good in the 19th century.

The program's first half offered a look into the early forms as they developed from the dance and were garnished by the growth of virtuosity. The simple repetitive bass line of the Renaissance chaconne, or ciaccona, lent itself to layering of instrumental voices. This was illustrated as members of the quartet came onstage individually, building upon the pattern laid down by cellist Andrea Stewart. Harpsichordist Rona Nadler provided harmonic support on a brightly assertive Robert Duffy instrument, on top of which Alexa Raine-Wright (recorder) and Sallynee Amawat (violin) added decorative lines often in near-imitation of each other. A toccata by Girolamo Frescobaldi displayed the Italian taste for the ornate, taken in a virtuosic direction beyond even the most adroit singers, who were establishing the popularity of opera during his lifetime (1583-1643), thanks to Monteverdi and his contemporaries.

That the burgeoning genre of opera was an influence on non-vocal music became evident after the Tarquinio Merula chaconne
with Dario Castello's "Sonata duodecima." More expertly executed recorder-violin interplay in a structure of slow/fast alternation evoked the recitative/aria contrasts of opera. Though well-played by Stewart and Nadler in duo, Domenico Gabrielli's Sonata No. 1 in G major for cello and basso continuo overstayed its welcome. Another chaconne, this one by Antonio Bertali, was then launched without pause. The first half ended with an enthralling Sinfonia from the oratorio "La Susanna," by Alessandro Stradella, which displayed the maturation of instrumental music with the vocal heritage absorbed.

Development of musical materials in the modern sense burst forth after intermission. Corelli, the linchpin of the program, was beautifully showcased in a G major sonata. The dramatic possibilities of cadences were nicely illustrated, and the audience was shown something of the concerto style, with a first-among-equals approach here and in pieces by Geminiani and Locatelli that followed. Raine-Wright's switch to a transverse flute for works by Locatelli and Jean-Marie Leclair was welcome; I'm among relatively few early-music listeners who can easily get too much of the end-blown flute (recorder). I really loved the tone of her baroque flute; intonation was impeccable, and her agility matched what she had shown as a recorder player.

The quartet worked really well together throughout, and the wealth of contrast in handling small ensembles and exploring their potential by these baroque composers was thoroughly illustrated. I was struck by a parallelism in the two halves that was (perhaps wisely) not brought out in oral or written program notes: Both of the composers chosen to end each half — Stradella and Leclair — were murdered. That's a pretty rare conclusion of composer life spans, it seems to me; only Marc Blitzstein, a 20th-century American opera composer, comes to mind as a comparable victim of fatal foul play.

In this concert, however, there was nothing but fair play to be encountered.

[Concert photo by Dan Shields]

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Early Music Festival: Henry Purcell, England's greatest composer before the 19th century, viewed from a popular perspective

The clearest indication of what "The People's Purcell" — the program La Nef gave Friday in the Indianapolis Early Music Festival — was all about came with the encore.
Michael Slattery: The ingratiating tenor soloist with La Nef in its Purcell program.

Not that the Montreal ensemble, featuring the captivating tenor Michael Slattery, hadn't already signaled its approach to the 17th-century English composer in both its music-making and the program note. But "When I am laid in earth," known as Dido's Lament from the opera "Dido and Aeneas," is probably Purcell's greatest hit. Before singing it, Slattery invited the Indiana History Center audience to consider it in the same light as "Memory" from "Cats."

Given its familiarity, you could readily note the difference between the stately original lament of the North African queen, abandoned by her lover Aeneas on his way to found Rome, and the La Nef stylization that followed, extending the compact aria. This sort of thing is well done by the expertly coordinated group (seven instrumentalists plus Slattery), which ranges widely in style and repertoire as a matter of course.

In some sense, it may be best to borrow the term "cover" from pop music to describe how La Nef treated Purcell in this concert.  The word was used in the 1950s to describe the marketing stratagem by which black musicians' recordings were "covered" by whites to make the songs more salable. Roll over, Big Mama Thornton! It's Elvis' "Hound Dog" now.

Marketing may be less germane to identify what La Nef does, but its arrangements, fused to instrumental mastery, certainly help establish and maintain its brand. Not all of Purcell would be well-served by being put through such a blender, but the songs, whose abundance Grove's Dictionary describes as "almost embarrassing," communicate something essential about his expressive, well-knit melodic style. The sporadic dissonance in the instrumental accompaniment is also a notable feature of Purcell, and is put to effective dramatic use in the stage works. This was demonstrated, introducing and punctuating the teeth-chattering vocal line, by "What power art thou" (The Cold Song) from "King Arthur," in an arrangement with frostbitten string figures seemingly borrowed from Vivaldi's "Winter" in "The Four Seasons."

La Nef arrangements for this combination had to be fashioned from a variety of simpler accompaniments. Sometimes rhythmic and harmonic changes were made, as the program note states. You could hear that as the melody of Dido's Lament changed character and the prominence of its descending bass line receded into La-Nefian splendor. This version became indeed commensurate with the stuck-in-the-head amplitude of "Memory," though it could be argued that the simple dolor of the original song has its own perpetual ear-worm status.

Instrumental showcases gave Slattery some relief in the form of concise suites from the theater music, including a "King Arthur" Suite that featured cherishable expressivity in episodes featuring cellist Amanda Keesmaat and recorder player Gregoire Jeay. The high quality of accompaniment provided by archlutenist Sylvain Bergeron throughout particularly placed the concert, for all its inviting departures from "authenticity," firmly in the Purcellian orbit.

The loose feeling about vocal expression that Slattery brings to these arrangements was most notable in the "ah" and humming choruses of "She loves and she confesses too" that followed presentation of the smitten text. The kind of gender equality represented by both sexes' tendency to be deceitful in love was coyly represented in Slattery's performance of "When I have often heard." Sitting on a high stool and often contributing the drone of a shruti box to the accompaniment, the tenor was a mesmerizing performer, with immense dynamic and breath control.

In accepting the La Nef manner with Purcell, you had to take in a butter-smooth manner of vocal projection that sometimes wasn't far from crooning, as in "Music for a while" and the unscheduled insertion of a John Dowland piece to bring the concert up to intermission — "Now O now I needs must part." The vocal quality, however, in the latter piece was a far cry from the sincere if grainy manner of Sting in his Dowland interpretations. How a singer looks when expressing emotion is properly allowed to complement the singing, of course. But Slattery pushed the envelope somewhat, scrunching up his face and baring his teeth too often. He has so much to offer in pure vocalism, however, that a little mugging could be taken in stride.

The concluding work paid tribute to another vast part of Purcell's output: sacred music. It's a credit to La Nef and Slattery that its populist approach to the Restoration composer's music did not violate the well-crafted piety of "Now that the sun hath veiled his light," with its flowering of "Hallellujahs" (or "Alleluias") at the end. It's the kind of richness that proliferates in Purcell's music — like the variant spellings of his name, which total nine (according to Grove's).

And these musicians' efforts at putting their stamp on the music and bringing it forward while representing Purcell's energy and variety for the 21st century are worthy of hallelujahs all their own.