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Arts

Breaking Down The Oscar Nominations

The nominations for the 92nd Academy Awards were announced Monday. NPR's Audie Cornish welcomes entertainment journalist Joelle Monique and NPR's Bob Mondello to break them down.

The Fossilized 2020 Oscar Nominations

Richard Brody on the 2020 Oscar nominations, which recognized “1917,” “Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood,” “The Joker,” and “The Irishman,” to the exclusion of innovation films such as “Uncut Gems,” “The Dead Don’t Die,” and “Atlantics.”

Indy Jazz Foundation ramps up impresario role with recording project, 'The Naptown Sound'

For two nights running this weekend, the Jazz Kitchen played host to a gathering of many of the top musicians in Central Indiana to showcase "The Naptown Sound."

The umbrella term may suffice to build interest in a recording that's set to emerge from four sets Friday and Saturday, with sponsorship from Indianapolis Jazz Foundation and Yats, the local Creole restaurant chain whose mother ship has long docked just south of the jazz club on College Avenue. Certainly the live performances themselves must have advanced the cause.

Attending the first set Saturday, I found there was just enough design to the program, but not too much to seem to inhibit spontaneity of either performance or response. The Indy Jazz Collective got things going, with its flexible size pretty much at a comfortable maximum. The front line of leader Rob Dixon and Sophie Faught, tenor saxes, trombonist Freddie Mendoza and trumpeter/flugelhornists Marlin McKay and Mark Buselli, made sturdy work of "Millions," composer Dixon's wry, hard-grooving tribute to casinos and the millions of dollars that vanish there.

With a rhythm section of Steve Allee, Nick Tucker, and Carrington Clinton, the ensemble shored up the end of each solo with a repeated tag, propelling the next individual statement. The tune has had widespread exposure  thanks to "Coast to Crossroads," Dixon's 2018 trio recording with Charlie Hunter and Mike Clark.

Pianist Allee brought to the stage a tasty blend of adventurous harmonies and funky feeling. The veteran bandleader-pianist later headed a group in a romp through his original, "Yummy," a tune with lots of space in it. The performance featured a typically appealing Dixon solo. The backing for McKay's ruminative flugelhorn solo was smoothly understated, yet insistent, from Jon Wood's bass guitar and Kenny Phelps' drums. Adjustment that showcased soloists well seemed to come naturally to this band.

Wood's sound and well-articulated lines enhanced the guitar triumvirate paying tribute to Wes Montgomery with the demigod guitarist's "Road Song."  The guitarists — Ryan Taylor, Joel Tucker, and Charlie Ballantine — showed both their distinctiveness and respect for the sainted master. Also making the memorial connection come alive was the elaborate  zest of Kevin Anker's organ-playing.

The Tucker Brothers' quartet: Nick (from left), Joel, Sean Imboden, and (hidden behind Imboden) Brian Yarde.
A pickup band of distinction proved to be the Ball State Connection, which in jazz studies director Buselli's "The Trouble With Triplets," evoked the relaxed swing of classic hard bop. The composer's plunger-muted solo was a highlight of the performance.

Some grounding in bop was evident in the Tucker Brothers' appearance. The quartet has been remarkably cohesive in a series of recordings and frequent concert dates over the past several years. They proved their mettle in the tricky "Rhythm Change," notable for a fleet, well-integrated guitar solo by Joel Tucker.

Another highlight on the occasional reflective side of the set was Sophie Faught's duo with Allee in her shapely ballad "Song of the Snow Belt." That was immediately preceded by Jared Thompson leading his own sax charge at the head of his quartet, Premium Blend. The band opened space near the end for an exuberant accompanied solo from drummer Yarde. The other vitality-infusing members are keyboardist Steven Jones and guitarist Taylor. The set closed with one of the Naptown Sound program's successful blends (also premium, you might say), a blues also bringing Taylor, Wood, Clinton, and Anker to bear on the mood of celebration.


[Photo by Rob Ambrose]








Putting on their anniversary best: ISO opens a long-running celebration of Beethoven

The lobby ga hung his name in all caps above a white-cloud sculpture seemingly inspired by Alexander Calder's stabiles, the work of a University of Indianapolis art-department team. The pre-concert crowd milled expectantly around, swelled by infrequent symphony attenders drawn by the name and music of the honoree.
Beethoven aloft: The Hilbert Circle Theatre lobby


The occasion was Friday's launch at Hilbert Circle Theatre of BTHVN2020, the vowel-less, freeze-dried signal for the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's celebration of Ludwig van Beethoven's 250th birth year. Just add passion and preparation and stir.

But how should an observer proceed, how welcome the inevitable celebration in a focused manner as BTHVN2020 gets under way? I feel somewhat akin to Stephen Leacock's Lord Ronald, who after a quarrel with his father "flung himself from the room, flung himself upon his horse and rode madly off in all directions."

Here's part of the problem: It has been brought up on previous Beethoven anniversaries (significant round numbers commemorating birth and death [1827]) that the world's orchestras in effect offer a perpetual Beethoven festival in their regular programming.

The best honor, the estimable critic Michael Steinberg decreed half-seriously in the Boston Globe at the bicentennial, might be not to play Beethoven for a year. Recently the Chicago Tribune published an essay by a feminist musicologist on the same theme, with no tongue-in-cheekiness about it: Replace Beethoven with new music for a year, she urged. And Norman Lebrecht, international star music blogger, viewed the possibility with a predictably jaundiced eye.

A moratorium is beyond the pale when so much of symphony-orchestra health nowadays is tied to marketing: Beethoven sells. And musicians are careful to avoid trumpeting any suggestion they are tired of Beethoven. The late Raymond Leppard (who will be given an ISO memorial tribute at 5 p.m. Jan. 13 at its home) was being characteristically frank when he admitted to me long ago: "I thought of him as here's this German always coming at you."

Yet Leppard, surely not driven by marketing but by artistic vision, offered ISO patrons a well-conceived "Young Beethoven" festival thirty years ago. And the composer's Symphony No. 2 in D major was the vehicle in that festival by which Leppard drove home to me what he had accomplished since assuming the music directorship in 1987. This is, in part, what I wrote in my Indianapolis Star review: "Emotionally, the performance maintained almost flawlessly a balance between intensity and charm. The cohesiveness Leppard has imparted to the ensemble can now serve larger expressive ends...so natural as to sound spontaneous."

The ISO has built upon those strengths with Leppard's successors. On Friday night, Krzysztof Urbanski drew from the orchestra a full-fledged celebration of the composer's path to revolutionary status. It brought forward Urbanski's strengths as an interpreter, particularly with respect to balance and momentum. Like Arturo Toscanini, whose recorded set of Beethoven symphonies still stands as a milestone, Urbanski thinks of lines running parallel in Beethoven. The hints of the romanticism that was to be in full flower by mid-century mustn't be forced to bloom in performances weighed down with glutinous profundity: Beethoven is not Schumann.

I thought particularly in the second movement that the young German, who had studied counterpoint with Johann Georg Albrechtsberger at the recommendation of Joseph Haydn during Beethoven's early Viennese period, displays how he'd internalized his lessons with personal mastery. The prolific composer Albrechtsberger is known today only as one of Beethoven's teachers, a small collection of masters who, unsurprisingly, found him hard to instruct. (The first time I'd encountered the name was in a "Peanuts" cartoon, thanks to Schroeder.)

Beethoven's willfulness and iconoclasm can be discerned in several places in this weekend's program, which besides the Second Symphony comprises Symphony No. 1 in C major and two new works commissioned for the occasion:  Nathaniel Stookey's "Spire" and Hannah Lash's "Forestallings." The First Symphony has some famous novelties, notably the teasing start of the finale (alertly rendered on Friday). I sensed that Urbanski finds the music preparatory to more characteristic Beethoven. The performance was nimble, if a little too weighty in some full-ensemble passages, and the interplay of winds and strings, especially in a slower-than-usual "Menuetto" third movement, was delightful.

Still, I think both the wit and the unleashing of orchestral might were especially scintillating in the D-major Symphony. The admirable Hoosier-trained maestro Kenneth Woods, in his blog ranking of Beethoven symphony finales, puts its "Allegro molto" movement near the top, next to the august No. 9.  He finds No. 2's conclusion both funny and "rude": "the main theme is a sort of deranged musical fart joke," is Woods' memorable formulation.

Urbanski may not have been aiming at that effect, but it certainly could be applied to how Friday's performance proceeded, right through the Bronx-cheer-like buzzing in the coda, which the conductor summoned up with wildly waggling fingers. Here was music that almost matched Urbanski's hyperbolic image, delivered in an oral program note from the podium of Beethoven trashing the mansion of Western music like certain rock bands once vandalized hotel rooms.

In the two new works, there was more a feeling that musical tradition, altered but not ruined by Beethoven, was worth a centered approach. "Spire" opens with a low-register murmur that  brought to mind the episode in Elgar's "Enigma" Variations in which a steamship's whir is evoked. The impression is dispelled as the texture gradually becomes thinner and the tessitura shifts upward. It amounts to a meditation on that teasing scalar passage in the First Symphony's finale. "Forestallings," whose title suggests the push-pull between Beethoven's impulsive gestures and checks he often put on the music's forward thrust, was also attractive, if rather more laconic. There was an impression I can't shake that the composer felt constrained by the five-minute limit in the commission.

Clearly I have not felt such constraints, and there is more I could go on about: the contribution of the horns and trumpets, heard in their valveless predecessors in this series of concerts, and my favorable first impression of the ISO's just-announced new concertmaster, Kevin Lin, in place this weekend as one of a long series of guest concertmasters.

However, though by no means out of a Randalian fit of rage, I've already ridden madly off in all directions. Beethoven will do that to you.





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