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Arts

ISO's French connections: Urbanski crowns the month's first Classical Series program with Debussy

The last time Jean-Yves Thibaudet and Krzysztof Urbanski collaborated in an Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra
Jean-Yves Thibaudet: In the driver's seat for Ravel and Connesson
program, the vehicle also hinted at warm Franco-American relationships in music.

Then there was a meeting of minds around George Gershwin's Concerto in F. As the program note of this weekend's concerts makes clear, Gershwin and his older French contemporary Maurice Ravel had a mutual admiration society, though their acquaintance was slight, centered on a New York meeting in 1928. A common interest in jazz and in melody helped to bond them. Thibaudet, himself an exemplar of Franco-American amity, maintains personal and artistic homes in Los Angeles and his native Lyon, France.

Ravel's Piano Concerto in G major opened the concert Friday night at Hilbert Circle Theatre. The program, also including works by Guillaume Connesson and Claude Debussy, will be repeated at 5:30 this afternoon. In the Ravel, the pianist displayed a pronounced affinity for snappy rhythms and fast tempos (in the outer movements), and a melting lyricism in the Adagio assai.

His affinity with American jazz icons (he has made recordings focused on Bill Evans and Duke Ellington) may account for some of his behind-the-beat phrasing in the slow movement, a feeling of holding back while not dragging the regular pulse, which is known in European classical music (Chopin especially) as rubato. That movement also featured a tremendous, well-managed crescendo and a lambent English-horn solo by Roger Roe.

In the finale, alert staccato bursts from the orchestra complemented Thibaudet's own liveliness. The Presto pace was maintained pedal-to-the-metal, with some bone-rattling accents. The bustling first movement concluded in a downward rush all around that was just flippant enough to be witty rather than dismissive.

Thibaudet returned to lend his gift for dispatching fleet figuration and climactic cannonades to a contemporary French piece, "The Shining One," by Connesson, who's just shy of 50 years old. Modernism having presented a cornucopia of orchestral riches in the past century, today's active composers have plenty to draw upon when they move beyond it and give respectful attention to other cultural matters. In this case, it's the genre of the fantasy novel, specifically "The Moon Pool" by Abraham Merritt.

Some treasures of modernism, as well as a few antecedents, are enumerated in Marianne Tobias' program note for "The Shining One." Over the course of nine lively minutes, ending in a brouhaha for everyone, it was impossible to trace on a single hearing just who ranks highest among Connesson's precursors. If a pattern of allusiveness can be found, it adds up to a musical profile that seems paradoxically individual.

"The Shining One" is the second Connesson piece ISO audiences have heard this year. Of the first, "Les cites du Lovecraft," I wrote: "Vivid novelties, often violent and spectacular, were always striking the ear, but there was something naggingly overripe about the piece." Fortunately, this weekend's Connesson isn't long enough to become naggingly overripe. But there was a plethora of ear-striking that held the attention.

After intermission came one of Urbanski's triumphs interpreting standard repertoire. "La Mer," Debussy's three symphonic sketches (as he described the work), received a richly detailed performance that had all the sweep and majesty of its subject that one could ask for. It may have been misunderstood when it was new because Debussy's idiom had not been fully absorbed and some listeners were expecting a more obviously pictorial treatment of nature's most abundant feature and source of the planet's life.

Hokusai's "Mount Fuji," which enchanted Debussy.
I've long considered "La Mer" to be unique among works inspired by nature and keen to raise images in our mind's eye. What's unique is how emotionally engaging it is. It may be because it's more a parallel to the sea than an evocation of it. Plenty of listeners may by now enjoy reminders of the title in what they hear, but I like the purity of its layout, its intensely interwoven structure, its opaque and translucent sonorities, and the odd sense it gives that Debussy has created an ocean to place on an equal footing beside the one made by God or whatever natural forces may be responsible.

Friday's "La Mer" moved me on its own terms. Not only did it vividly suggest the sea's motion and shifts in its sunlit radiance and wind-driven temperament, the performance was sculptural as well as dramatic — like the breaking wave caught with its foamy fingers about to pounce on the shoreline in the print series by the Japanese artist Hokusai that inspired Debussy during the composition process. This allusion came through with particular strength in the finale, "Dialogue of Wind and the Sea."

In an age when plastic snags in the maws and gullets of sea creatures and in microscopic form stretches throughout the ocean-derived food chain, when appalling masses of human waste float across sluggish expanses of seawater, when the rising oceanic temperature distorts nature in such a manner that sea turtles have become too overwhelmingly female for the species to survive, we will always have Debussy's sea. It may be a matter of increasing poignancy whenever the work is performed this well that we will no longer have the Creation's sea existing simultaneously.



ATI's 'Alabama Story' has a happy, book-positive ending, subject to history's editing

History may not really repeat itself, but it tends to self-amplify. Issues and personalities, shifting cultural values and resistance to change, the opposition of bigotry and tolerance, keep recycling. Progress, however defined, is inevitably compromised and flecked with unwelcome reminders, sometimes freshly outfitted to accommodate revived prejudices.
 
Group portrait of the living past: actors Cameron Stuart Bass, Maeghan Looney, Don Farrell, and Cynthia Collins as characters in "Alabama Story."


From the heyday of segregation, "Alabama Story," the current Actors Theatre of Indiana production, revisits a controversy of the 1950s. Seismic shifts in the advance toward racial justice marked a decade in which the Old South sought to hold on to the ideology of segregation. Suddenly a children's book by Garth Williams moved to the forefront of culture wars because of the happy union it depicts of one black and one white rabbit.

Kenneth Jones has fashioned a hard-hitting drama out of the heroism of an old-maid librarian (the stereotype phrasing is deliberately adopted) who resisted a campaign against the inclusion of "The Rabbits' Wedding" on the state's public library shelves. As seen in the Studio Theater Thursday night, Cynthia Collins portrays Emily Wheelock Reed as a flinty defender of the right to read, exercising her full powers as head of the Alabama Public Library Service Division. Books deemed notable by the American Library Association were recommended to Alabama librarians for acquisition, making "The Rabbit's Wedding" a political hot potato. She is supported uneasily but steadfastly by an assistant, Thomas Franklin, played both awkwardly and gracefully by Samuel L. Wick.

In her high-ranking position, Reed was subject to the Alabama legislature's influence, represented here with booming self-assertion by Don Farrell as state senator E.W. Higgins. The play holds Reed up as a warrior against unexpected hostility who turns out to display a good measure of compassion as well as  shrewdness. Sixty years ago, the controversy about the book went national and a little bit international, weakening the bulwark of enforced segregation partly because of the absurdity of seeing "The Rabbits' Wedding" as propaganda for race-mixing.

The play has a parallel story in which a black man, Joshua Moore, who went north from Alabama to pursue a career in business, returns to assist the civil-rights struggle spearheaded by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.  
As he passes by a "whites only" park bench in Montgomery one day, he recognizes a white childhood friend, the flirtatious and lonely Lily Whitfield, sitting there reading. They had grown up as neighbors on her father's estate, run on the old plantation model, a faux-idyllic arrangement shattered one evening by an indiscretion  prompted by the "poor little rich girl."

This makes for a provocative theme that may explain some of the erosion that the Old South was soon to experience. Though civil-rights agitation against Dixie norms was essential to change, departures in the privileged class from segregationist orthodoxy probably occurred because the reigning bigotry didn't suit everyone in the dominant group. Lily, played with fast-paced fragility and irrepressible yearning by Maeghann Looney, is shown to be isolated by her status and thus capable of feeling the disdain normally directed at the less privileged. Her evolving sympathy, rooted in fond memories of an odd fantasy bonding with Joshua over the Uncle Remus tales of Joel Chandler Harris, symbolize the slow dissolution of inherited prejudice.

The playwright shows Lily has more than a few blind spots and a conveniently faulty memory, but she becomes an inadvertent "fifth columnist" in her homeland's epochal struggle. I felt the chemistry of the interracial relationship was somewhat one-sided, with inadequate reciprocity from Cameron Stuart Bass as Joshua, but the mutual attraction and the obstacles it raises came across anyway.

Directed by Jane Unger, the production consistently projects simple, enduring humanity. The documentary-like presentation of the opening scene and several others are expertly managed. The dramatic conflicts are clearly drawn. The initial meeting in the librarian's office with the senator includes exquisitely timed hesitations and practiced gentility on the part of Don Farrell as the politician warms up the threat machine. 

He will stride into further prominence as the spark plug of censorship, backed up by the White Citizens' Council and fashioning an idiosyncratic profile in courage despite the misgivings of a senior senator and mentor, played by Paul Tavianini in one of several minor roles. His major appearance is as the folksy author/illustrator of "The Rabbits' Wedding," Garth Williams. 

The celebrity author's narrative and commentary provide a ready vehicle to carry "Alabama Story" forward into our hearts, with R. Bernard Killian's scenic design and technical direction once again supporting the ATI players expertly. It's not just the set's glowing bookshelves that emphasize the importance of wide, devoted, exploratory reading  — it's everything about this moving story and its characters.





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