- Pianist Awadagin Pratt played Rhapsody in Blue
If Friday's Circle Theatre wasn't sold out, it came mighty close; I could not see an empty seat anywhere. What attracted so many? Perhaps it was the $20-per-ticket charge for the remaining seats, wherever located -- good for both the classical and pops series till the end of this season. The cause wasn't apt to be the performance debut of William Bolcom's Games and Challenges: Something Wonderful Right Away, for playing, miming and improvisation, featuring our trio-in-residence, Time for Three. One frustrated patron said at the break, after its performance: "I go to the symphony to hear something beautiful, and I get this crap." But the lion's share of the audience, surely including many newcomers, seemed more than pleased with the "entertainment."
Drawing first from Chicago's Second City Troup of the '60s, Bolcom fashioned a nine-part work lasting nearly half an hour, a mix of "games" and "challenges" featuring the orchestra, plus Urbański, plus Time for Three members Zach de Pue (violinist and ISO concertmaster), Nick Kendall (violinist) and Ranaan Meyer (bassist). They were all producing music as well as doing a hefty degree of mimicry, of "art imitating life."
Starting with an empty stage, the work began with the orchestra members each stepping their way in, sounding a note with each step while chanting from Edith Sitwell and William Walton's Façade. The then-filled-stage people intoned: "Thanks, Edith and Willie, from the City of Indianapolis." That was Game One -- the music now up full.
Which immediately segued into Game Two: "Play Ball." Urbański was the pitcher and the Time for Three players were the batter, catcher, and umpire respectively. (No ball was used; after all, this was mime.) Then came Challenge One: "A Little Bit Ominous," in which the Time for Three people improvised on a phrase supplied in Andre Hajdu's Book of Challenges.
And so it went through the ensuing six parts: three games, two challenges and a Finale melding both: "I Want My Fun Now!"--bringing the audience into the clapping and chanting fray. Nothing profound happened, but it was a trip!
Bolcom's one startlingly original musical entry was in his eighth part, Game Five: "Slow and Easy Wins the Race." Starting at the bottom of the lowest register of the lowest (and largest) instruments -- i.e. the tuba, the contrabassoon and the double basses, the music glided slowly upward, engaging each instrument at the bottom of its respective compass, gradually encompassing more and more of the smaller instruments. As the pitch got higher, the largest instruments reached their upper limit and bowed out. This continued till only the smallest, highest-pitched instruments were left. And guess which one made it to the top. Rebecca Price Arrensen's piccolo was the only instrument sounding at the end. She stood up and gave us a "hurrah." To my knowledge, no composer has ever done this before.
Though Bolcom's remaining orchestral music was generically contemporary, the Time for Three group stood out, as they seemingly always do. They examined many styles, including more than a hint of bluegrass, and adding more improvised excitement to the experience.
As another pace changer, the program's second half featured two Gershwin mainstays: Rhapsody in Blue, with Awadagin Pratt as piano soloist, and the all-orchestral An American in Paris. Though technically not quite on a par with most of the younger guest pianists we've savored this season, Pratt offers an originality in his keyboard work missed by others--not to mention improvising on a number of Gershwin's keyboard passages in his own manner. This compensated for a lack of articulation heard in some of the fleeter construction.
Clearly his finest symphonic work, Gershwin's An American in Paris derives some of its orchestral brilliance from Puccini, as in La Bohème's opening scene and all of its Act 2. Urbański did a commendable job bringing out all the myriad shades of colors in this tour de force -- despite a few slips by the horns and brasses. May 30-June 1; Hilbert Circle Theatre