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ISO's gala opening-night guest raises the "child prodigy" designation to a whole new level

Her media profile has been impressive on its own terms in print and broadcast, and helps account for the household-name sort of
Alma at home, from one of the latest media features (New York Times, June)
reception Alma Deutscher got Saturday night as the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra presented its annual gala opening concert. Cheers, whoops, repeated standing ovations, and a few lusty shouts on the order of "We love you, Alma!" punctuated the atmosphere.

But the 14-year-old musician has a well-grounded reason for being subject to the kind of exposure, vastly expanded in the digital age, that has accompanied extraordinarily gifted artists from the 18th-century birth of public concerts up to the present.

Music director Krzysztof Urbanski is among many eminent musicians who have expressed open astonishment at Deutscher's violin and piano playing and the facility and charm she displays in her compositions, which include a full-length opera.

Urbanski engaged in some entertaining chat midway with the young phenomenon from the Hilbert Circle Theatre stage, whose decor echoed that in the lobby in the amount of healthy shrubbery sparkling with strings of tiny lights.

The conductor seemed almost tongue-tied marveling at Deutscher's precocious accomplishments. The brief interview brought out matters that the prodigy has elaborated upon in interviews, including her affinity for melody, explicit rejection of "ugly music" to match our times,  and her attraction to Vienna — where she and her family now live and whose cultural pinnacle as an imperial capital is forever tied to the waltz.

The waltz bulked large in the program, familiarly in the case of the Waltz King, Johann Strauss Jr., whose "Fledermaus" Overture and "On the Beautiful Blue Danube" were hearty bookends. It also linked specifically to the creative side of Alma Deutscher: Her freshly minted "Siren Sounds Waltz" received its American premiere.

The composer was not onstage for that performance, but it proved to be quite the appetizer for the main course: a movement each from her Violin Colncerto in G minor and her Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat major, with the composer as soloist in both.

"Siren Sounds Waltz" opens with a well-managed urban cacophony keyed to the brief pattern of police sirens in Vienna. The thick melange of sound impressions offers as much dissonance as you're likely to hear in a Deutscher work, and was justifiably linked to the music of Richard Strauss by Urbanski during their conversation. The influence could be detected even after the texture thinned out and the waltz idiom came to the fore.

That Strauss, no relation to the Waltz King but also no mean composer of waltzes (as his operatic masterpiece "Der Rosenkavalier" confirms), seems less an influence on most of her music than another precocious composer in the Austro-German mainstream, Felix Mendelssohn. I thought of that particularly at the most fetching moment in the violin concerto excerpt — the re-entry of the orchestra as the solo cadenza ended. It had the gentle savoir-faire of the North German composer in how he re-introduces the orchestra after the cadenza in his Violin Concerto in E minor (which will be heard next weekend as the ISO begins its Classical Series).

Deutscher's singing tone fitted hand-in-glove with her compositional manner in the Allegro vivace e scherzando  movement of her violin concerto. As both performer and composer, there is a directness about her music-making that doesn't eschew sugary content and even a kind of cheerful banality. I was more moved by the slow movement of her piano concerto; at the start, the solo oboe (tenderly played by Jennifer Christen) was attractive against the bare accompaniment pattern Deutscher offered at the keyboard.

She had told Urbanski that she developed the music out of sadness at her grandmother's death, and the poignancy became pronounced as the movement took a serious turn. It was another evocation, at least in mood, of the way seriousness takes over the corresponding slow movement of that Mendelssohn violin concerto.  I also felt that his "Songs Without Words" may be a ghostly ancestor and companion of the Deutscher muse.

The way music flows out of her was illustrated when Urbanski presided over an improvisational challenge. The names of four notes were drawn out of a top hat individually by three volunteers and the conductor: C-sharp, E, C, and F-sharp. After musing silently for a few minutes, Alma-as-pianist came up with another waltz inspiration based on a set of notes that probably didn't seem congenial at first. She made them so, however, and it was shrewd of her to arrange the four-note motif in an ascending sequence. It allowed her to incorporate her temperamental uplift into the spontaneous creation. There were also touches of the sense of humor that are reflected unabashedly elsewhere in her music.

The concert's delights, keyed to what will probably be the soloist's eternally youthful spirit, were nicely capped by the ISO's encore. Conventional though it is in Viennese-themed concerts, it was entirely fitting here for this gala crowd to be sent on its merry way with Johann Strauss Sr.'s "Radetzky March."

Indy Jazz Fest 2019 opens with a salute to a specialty genre — the bossa nova

The tributary of bossa nova, an import from Brazil, contributed some much-needed fresh water to the jazz mainstream about six decades ago. This year's Indy Jazz Fest got off to an ingratiating start Thursday night at the University of Indianapolis with a salute to the popular genre.
Bossa nova highlight: Julie Houston and Rebecca Rafla sang together with the band a couple of times.

Overlaying jazz phrasing on samba rhythms, bossa nova (Portuguese for "new wave") enjoyed a vogue as the turbulent 1960s plowed their course through American culture.

The originators of the genre — songwriters, guitarists, and singers — became known here, and tenor saxophonist Stan Getz enjoyed a significant boost to his stature as an American bop and post-bop master through his creative association with them. The blend of silk and strength in his tone and his natural lyricism flourished under the bossa nova sway.

Rob Dixon, a saxophonist with stature all his own and a ubiquitous performer and bandleader hereabouts, led the concert. He assembled a band that worked through ten tunes smoothly. Besides Dixon, the ensemble consisted of Sandy Williams, guitar; Scott Routenberg, piano; Brandon Meeks, bass, and Richard "Sleepy" Floyd, drums. All are known for their consummate professionalism in other jazz precincts, and it was fun to enjoy their compatibility in this music.

Rob Dizon, jazz mayor of Indianapolis, presided.
In my view, bossa nova was a godsend to jazz vocalism. I have a notable lack of enthusiasm for most jazz singers. What the Brazilian import allowed was a stylistic lift, a new approach to phrasing over the eighth-note pulse with an unconventional pattern of accents. With wistful, often sad lyrics emphasizing the less "belting" manner of jazz singing, the voice was able to enjoy a new playground, free of show-biz aspirations. True, being comfortable with Portuguese (with English versions interpolated in most bossa nova performances) was a new challenge; otherwise, the rewards were manifold for American singers sympathetic to the genre.

I can't judge the authenticity of their Portuguese, but singers Julie Houston and Rebecca Rafla exuded charm and lyrical warmth in their performances Thursday. Two of the songs — the megahit "The Girl from Ipanema" and an audience-participation finale — brought them together in front of the band. There were ample chances to savor their solo enchantments as well: Houston's "Manha de Carnival" (the theme from "Black Orpheus") expressed an individuality and emotional involvement that Dixon nearly equaled in his florid soprano-sax solo. Rafla's opening pair of songs, "Agua de Marco" and "Corcovado," exhibited comparable expressivity as well as a freedom in her phrasing that avoided anything unidiomatic.

As the singers took a break, the men played a favorite of jazz musicians, Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Triste." There were excellent solos all around, with Routenberg introducing bluesy hints that received ensemble confirmation in the coda.

The performance was typical of every song's shapeliness in execution, with the endings sounding both fresh and well-coordinated. The singers deserve much of the credit for this effect. Kudos to the protean musicianship of Rob Dixon for inspiring the pleasurable effect of the show, with crucial assistance from two singers (with Houston's estimable flute-playing to boot) who knew what they were doing and clearly believed in it.

[Photos by Mark Sheldon]

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