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Arts

Jory Vinikour states the case for the modern harpsichord concerto

Much admired for his recorded contributions to the core harpsichord repertoire, Jory Vinikour in a new Cedille release displays the viability of the major 18th-century keyboard instrument in a mainstream modernist context.
Jory Vinikour is a prolific recording and concert artist.

"20th-Century Harpsichord Concertos" puts the Chicago native in front of the Chicago Philharmonic under the direction of Scott Speck for four such works. The well-recorded program includes the premiere recording of  Ned Rorem's Concertino da Camera, an early composition (1946) by one of the outstanding living American composers, who's now 95.

The Concertino is a frisky piece, starting with a Poulenc-like outburst of urbane nonchalance. The first movement boasts many tempo shifts and becomes almost theatrical in its pixieish variety, with winds predominating. The flute leads the ensemble in a sostenuto texture for the slow movement, with a delayed harpsichord entrance introducing a steady eighth-note pattern. The lyricism has the full flavor of youth about it. The finale, which sustains a skipping, animated 6/8 meter, is offhand, clever, and concise.

Vinikour has become quite the advocate for Victor Kalabis's Concerto for Harpsichord and Strings, the longest work on the disc. He dedicates the recording to the memory of the composer (1923-2006) and his harpsichordist-wife Zuzana Ruzickova. In the first movement, the predominant mood is restless and assertive, flecked with dissonance. The harpsichord is well-suited to filling out a cluttered texture with patterns that would become tedious if assigned to the piano.

Every piece included makes the point that putting the harpsichord in combination with modern orchestral instruments is not some sort of time-travel essay.  It's rather a matter of answering the challenge of finding a new language for characteristic harpsichord sonorities — including its doubling and buff-stop idiosyncrasies — to be expressed in with proportional accompaniment.

In the Kalabis, the solo-ensemble chatter in the finale, Allegro vivo, is thrilling, especially when it takes an inward turn to accommodate a violin solo near the end. This concerto often presents an aggressive front, but its overall demeanor deftly blends solo self-esteem with collegiality.

The disc opens with Concertino for Harpsichord and Strings by the short-lived Englishman Walter Leigh (1905-1942). The work is likely to remind the listener of a Bach concerto at the outset. Then it settles into a neo-classical vein, with a plethora of sequences that manage not to wear out their welcome over a three-and-a-half-minute span.  The slow movement has the charm of a modal English folk song about it, and the sharply accented Allegro vivace finale underlines the virtue of compactness when the generating material is modest.

Concluding the program is Michael Nyman's unconventional Concerto for Amplified Harpsichord and Strings, which builds a pedestal on which to place a memorial tango. The amplification doesn't much alter the unmiked instrument's sound, but rather sets it in low relief against the strings. The most delightful aspect of the piece is the way the central tango is succeeded by a solo cadenza. That high-profile episode is then capped by a jazzy "post-cadenza" movement, with the exuberance spread all around.




Guitarist John Scofield returns within a year to harvest a Combo 66 crop again

He declares his affection for Indianapolis each time he brings his band onstage, if memory serves. So it's no surprise that, for an A-list jazzman, John Scofield has come here fairly often. And it's our good fortune.
The patriarchal pose suits old maestro John Scofield just fine.


The latest gig is another two-night stand at the Jazz Kitchen. He is returning with his Combo 66 quartet, drawing on memories of his first appearance here with the same personnel last fall. His sidemen are Gerald Clayton, keyboards; Vicente Archer, bass, and Bill Stewart, drums.

I'm not especially partial to guitarists, but I find Scofield always worth hearing. Unless his personal collection of licks and cliches is so vast I can't remember them, he seems remarkably free of working a groove or a melodic idiosyncrasy to death. Saturday night's first set was no exception, even though the set list overlapped what he had to offer when I heard the band in October 2018.

I will avoid recycling the well-meant but rather flimsy literary analogy I came up with last time. I will stick to music and avoid comparisons even to other guitarists. If Scofield can always bring something fresh, I should try to honor that in my own way.

Again, he's conversant with a host of musical styles, adapted with unmistakable individuality. Clearly, he still nurtures an autumnal affinity for country music, a specialty he honed with considerable success in a 2016 Impulse release, "Country for Old Men." The genre allows him to inject a smoky baritone personality (think George Jones or Johnny Cash) into his playing, and the bent timbre of the pedal steel guitar can be referenced fruitfully as well. The blues is no stranger, either.

As the 70-minute set worked toward its conclusion, there was lengthy excursion into the melancholy side of country with "Hangover."  Scofield passed through episodes of strumming, upper-range quaver, and keening lyricism, especially in his second solo, building upon Clayton's moony, swooping organ solo and the lightly applied funk suggestions in Archer's outing.

That led up to a finale whose title I didn't catch. Clayton returned to the piano, revealing with consistency that there are wholly different ways in which the conventional keyboard instrument shines in contrast to the organ. Stewart, as his long association with Scofield illustrates, hangs with the guitarist idiomatically at every turn; he never sounds like a mere timekeeper when the music draws upon rural inspirations, for example.

Scofield turned his soloing into an exhibition of vernacular electric-guitar styles. It was a personal application of what Duke Ellington used to call "the wailing interval" when introducing a Paul Gonsalves showcase. This was how Scofield roused the crowd at the end of his first set last October, and if some want to disdain that as "playing to the gallery," let them. I think it illustrates his masterly way of constructing a set. Wailing works! You can trot out all the subtlety and nuance you want along the way, and this guitarist wrote the book on much of that. But it never hurts to ramp up the energy in sustaining your friendship with local fans, as Scofield and Combo 66 should continue to do tonight.




ACRONYM displays upper-case excellence under Early Music Festival auspices

Taking it to the streets: ACRONYM presented "Dreams of a Wounded Musketeer."
Opening the second weekend of the Indianapolis Early Music Festival with a program titled "Dreams of the Wounded Musketeer,"ACRONYM went from a 17th-century response to foreign musical and martial influences to the rigors of full-fledged battle, which is given the ultimate in picturesqueness in the "Battalia" in D major by Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber, a major composer of the early German Baroque.

Threats to a fictional "wounded musketeer" are used as a programmatic device to link short compositions known to 17th-century Viennese musicians and their audiences. The program notes speak in his well-informed, sometimes anguished voice. Viennese in those days looked with anxiety to the east, whence Ottoman attacks and invasions emerged. "Battalia" is a concise, rich collection of depictions of occasionally undisciplined soldiery, both at war and during lulls and leisure from it, who were charged with defending the Holy Roman Empire.

ACRONYM's program-ending account of "Battalia" differs from those of other early-music ensembles whose recordings I'm acquainted with. Some of the details as far as ensemble balance, "special effects," and the doleful ending in particular must be a matter of adaptation for today's performers. Last night, a pizzicato snap on the double bass concisely represented the soldier's demise, all dreams ended. An earlier episode of soldierly revelry has been compared in its chaos of contradictory musical statements to Charles Ives. There must be considerable interpretive freedom suggested by the scores.

"Battalia" in ACRONYM's performance had the precision and panache of everything that had preceded it, starting from the piece alluded to above, "Sonata Jucunda in D minor," which carries an "anonymous" label with the parenthetical suggestion that it is the work of Biber or his teacher Johann Heinrich Schmelzer.

Schmelzer was represented with certainty by his "Serenada in Mascara in A," a catchy representation of a masked ball. The dotted rhythms animating the simple theme displayed how close "classical music" in its early phases was to ordinary life, at least as ordinarily lived among society's upper crust.

The 12-person string ensemble, anchored to a central harpsichord and portative organ in a continuo role,  now and then performed at slightly reduced numbers according to the needs of a particular piece. The music was loaded with abrupt shifts in texture, occasionally in meter and tempo as well. There was a wealth of piquant overlapping and imitation of melodic lines among the four violinists, always grounded in support from middle- and lower-voice strings, which included viola da gamba,  lirone, cello, bass, and the skyscraperesque plucked-string bass lute called the theorbo.

ACRONYM was formed in 2012 specifically to play Johann Pezel's "Opus Musicum Sonatarum," a chaconne from which brought the concert's first half to a close at the Indiana History Center. Three violin soloists were featured in highly individualized episodes, which decorated the underlying chaconne with a variety of emphasis. The triple meter characteristic of the form helped ACRONYM impart a real swing to the music.

The Pezel displayed the unity and zest that seems to have carried such a large early-music group intact over the seven years since its founding on the narrow, but obviously sustaining, fulcrum of a single work. From there this expert band has spread its reach to explore the wealth of music that enabled the more familiar High Baroque to emerge and flourish.














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