Saturday, April 25, 2015

Indianapolis Symphonic Choir premieres an Arab-American composer's plea for peace

Mohammed Fairouz, composer
Mohammed Fairouz is a prolific, widely admired composer who seems determinedly engaged with the world outside music — particularly the world of his heritage, the Middle East. He has used the Psalms common in the wider religious heritage of the Abrahamic religions as a basis for an oratorio, "Zabur," which was premiered Friday night at the Hilbert Circle Theatre.

The Indianapolis Symphonic Choir presentation, conducted by its artistic director, Eric Stark,  also included the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra and the Indianapolis Children's Choir. With elaborate tilling of the ground for a new commissioning project (detailed in a short video shown before the concert), the ISC connected with the 29-year-old Arab-American. His interest in outreach plus a remarkable resume clearly led to the expectation that the new work would have an aura of community-building wrapped up in an artistically comprehensive package.

Truth be told, "Zabur"'s chief quality is its intense sincerity. The layout of the piece, whose title is Arabic for "psalms," spans the region's history and religious expression, focusing on appeals to the Divine Ruler for relief from the conflicts of secular rulers; hence the initial use of Psalm 2, familiar to oratorio-lovers from its setting in Handel's "Messiah."

Two psalm settings in Arabic (Psalm 102 is the other) frame dialogue between a Syrian blogger, Daoud, and his companion, Jibreel. Their names are Arabic versions of the monumental figures they represent: David, ancient king of a united Israel, to whom the Book of Psalms is traditionally ascribed; and the Archangel Gabriel, God's busiest and most exalted messenger.

Daoud and Jibreel are trying to communicate to the outside world from a bomb shelter in Syria, where families including small children are confined under life-threatening conditions. Their project is to take their acknowledgment of God's supremacy as a vehicle for turning suffering into art; mere social-media journalism is insufficient.

That's where these two figures join up with Fairouz's mission as a composer. A cynic might wonder if it's a little vain for a composer to insert his work into this appeal for divine mercy. When Daoud sings, "Suddenly I feel as though I may be able to raise my voice louder and more fully, and actually make the entire world hear my voice," has the composer stepped in as a ventriloquist?

"Zabur" brings to the fore powerfully the human need to cry out from the depths, to borrow language from Psalm 130.  That expression is particularly moving at the point when the shelter's children lift their voices in a series of questions, asking for Daoud's help in conveying their distress. Fairouz seems to have an intuitive feeling for the human voice, which is evident in the solo voices — baritone Michael Kelly (Daoud) and tenor Dann Coakwell (Jibreel) — as well as the choral writing.

Fairouz's style rests on certain aspects of minimalism, but he inflects this with sudden departures from repetitive patterns as well as decorative gestures that tweak those repetitions. "Zabur" is often comforting, despite the portrayal of conflict and privation: The massed singers' anguished "Ah!," plus instrumental clashing, opens the work and recurs before the second psalm setting, which concludes "Zabur." Arabic being completely unknown to me — and since the original is set in that language's  alphabet in the program booklet — it was hard to judge just what Fairouz was making of the text when; a phonetic version in our alphabet placed next to the translation would have helped.

I caught this for sure in the music: a timeless feeling accompanying the text's praise of the eternity of God was evident as the piece approached its conclusion. Its floating choral unisons recalled two works the program notes specifically acknowledge: Stravinsky's "Symphony of Psalms" and Bernstein's "Chichester Psalms." I left more persuaded by the depth of Fairouz's feeling for the  significance of what he addresses in the new oratorio than by the music itself.

No such problem accompanied my experience  of Gabriel Fauré's Requiem after intermission. In his  preface to "Choral Masterworks: A Listener's Guide," Michael Steinberg straightaway adopts the phrase "a religion-loving atheist" to describe himself. I would own up to being "a religion-wary agnostic." Like Steinberg, however, I can freely admit often being transported by sacred masterpieces, and Fauré's is certainly one of those. Belief is provisional, in my case, but feels genuine while I'm hearing a fine performance of it.

Apart from a brief trumpet-organ kerfuffle in the "Introitus: Kyrie," this was a magical rendition. There was sensitive orchestral playing; the lower strings were having a good night. The choir displayed its most radiant tone and purest diction, the baritone soloist (Kelly again) dispatched "Hostias" and "Libera me" with the non-operatic intimacy the composer wanted, and the soprano solo ("Pie Jesu") was acceptably handled by eight ICC members.

The concert came full circle with the finale "In Paradisum" and its reference to the hoped-for angelic  guidance of the departed souls into the holy city of Jerusalem, whose status was conferred long ago by the legendary King David, Farouz's Daoud. Even more worth noting, in light of my self-description above, is the effect "In Paradisum" had on me. So I want to end this post with the lovely, and most revealing, final paragraph of Steinberg's essay on Fauré's Requiem. I can never read this paragraph without getting chills:

"Once I was giving a preconcert talk on the Fauré Requiem in the beautiful Mechanics Hall in Worcester, Massachusetts, and as I came to the end, I heard myself say something I had not planned to say, and not remotely thought about. I found myself remembering Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran theologian who was executed in 1945 for his involvement in the July 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler. A priest walked with him to the place of execution, and Bonhoeffer parted from his companion with the words. 'In five minutes, Father, I shall know more than you.' And I said that this music tells me Gabriel Fauré already knew."

Friday, April 24, 2015

In pursuit of the White Whale: NoExitPerformance enters the maelstrom of 'Moby Dick' — and survives

Stage adaptations of monstrous, venerated literary works are not as rare as one might expect. The challenge to extract theatrical values from famous prose narratives is irresistible, and instant name recognition of the adapted material amounts to a marketing boost from the get-go.

NoExit Performance, valiant and imaginative among the smaller theater organizations in town, entered the second and final weekend of its "Moby Dick" production Thursday night at the Wheeler Arts Community just south of Fountain Square.

Julian Rad's adaptation of Herman Melville's leviathan book hits all the major themes, judging from my memory of having finished reading it in January. (My first reading was in my teens; this time, I was appalled to see the word "omit" penciled in on the first page of each chapter that digresses from the main narrative thread — and ignored that immature directive.)

The nearly abstract look of the set, which is also turned to practical use, supports the show's larger themes.
To be sure, some important elements have suffered shrinkage, but they are there in outline: The  initially rough friendship between the narrator, Ishmael (Rory Willats), and the exotic harpooner Queequeg (Max Jones) — mysterious and profound and resonant with homoerotic overtones — isn't fully fleshed out. Father Mapple's sermon,  probably the most famous homily in fiction until the hellfire-and-brimstone clerical rant in James Joyce's  "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man," is missing — though the enlisted crew here sings a solemn pre-voyage hymn that serves a similar purpose. The leisurely grandiloquence of Melville's language, even some of its humor, is preserved in generous voice-over use of Ishmael's narration.

With the inspired direction (including apt choreographic ornamentation) of Michael Burke, this version both haunts and excites. It is noisy and energetic, infused with demonic possession in the person and influence of Captain Ahab, who is determined to turn the hard business of whaling into the even harder mission of personal revenge.

Burke has woven into the show recorded atmospheric music, sensitive to the changing moods of hope, fear, bravado and dedication to work that run throughout the doomed crew. After a crew member is lost overboard, a substantial portion of Gorecki's "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs" makes for a perfect aural background. Ryan Mullins' set design is a richly suggestive backdrop of sails and rigging, with weather-worn wood representations of various shipboard surfaces in the foreground.

Best of all in this adaptation, as seen Thursday, was one of the quiet scenes, a colloquy between Captain Ahab and his skeptical first mate, Starbuck (Scott Russell), in which the nagging desire for a settled life on land preoccupies both men. What emerges here and in one of his raging speeches is Ahab's sense that his quest to kill the whale that cost him a leg and has caused legendary havoc to whalers the world over is out of his control. His mania is driven not merely by willful stubbornness but by destiny. Melville's questioning of free will is a notable philosophical source of energy in "Moby Dick," and all who see this show risk having this unsettling question raised in their own comparatively quiet lives.

Bill Wilkison displayed volcanic rage as Ahab, here holding his customized harpoon.
There were times I cringed at the predominance of uproar in the show, in that I couldn't make out lines that were lost in the shouting and soundtrack. I concluded that the raucous blur was Burke's  deliberate choice, even though a little less roaring on the part of Bill Wilkison, who played Ahab with startling force, would have been helpful: There are ways to express fury at less than top volume. But for so many words to be lost in the general tumult mirrored the underlying theme of the Pequod's being in the grip of something inhuman and elemental.

However much visitors to this show may sense the value of this choice, they are sure to notice the cast's fervent portrayal of these hard-working, poorly paid men submitting to the voyage's business purpose. The wasteful commerce of whaling is part of humankind's grim history according to which every energy source ever mass-produced has despoiled the environment and endangered human life. Whaling was sustained by the demand for whale oil, the main source of pre-electric illumination in American homes. Food extracted from a whale kill was eaten on board; it was valueless as cargo in the era before refrigeration. Secondary booty included whalebone, used primarily in women's corsets, and spermaceti, a source of cosmetics. Ah, vanity!

In this context, Ahab's insane quest is almost as defensible — when you take the long view — as the attention to duty that Starbuck tries to uphold. For most of us, Starbuck's values are good enough: They support life, however meanly or shortsightedly, and they encourage a sense of connection to the human world beyond ourselves. Ahab, of course, is in thrall to something larger — how to get back at the universe for making all of us so vulnerable. It's a losing battle, of course, and we're better off not going there, except in the imagination that this production so vividly embodies.

Yet we're all in the same boat, too. Among this production's moving scenes is the last thing you see — the curtain call, no solo bows, with the cast all in a line, Ahab among his fellows.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Musings about jazz — related to the new Palladium season and to the American Pianists Association — as April, officially Jazz Month, draws to a close

Out on a limb, in the spirit of jazz, I'm going to start this post with a retrospective judgment on the outcome of the 2015 Jazz Fellowship Awards of the American Pianists Association.

I say "out on a limb" — and I hope without sawing off the part I'm sitting on — because I missed both the semifinals and finals in person due to an out-of-town trip. And I didn't hear all five of the Premiere Series sessions earlier this season at the Jazz Kitchen, either.

But, thanks to the Eskenazi Health series of solo mini-recitals plus my YouTube viewing of the March 28 finals, here are one fan's impression of the far-and-away winners. And I'm focusing on how the finals struck me (throwing some earlier impressions, when available, into the mix). The Hilbert Circle Theatre event presented the five young men in two outings:  one song accompanying Dianne Reeves, the other selection an arrangement played with the Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra.

No pianist comps behind a singer better than Zach Lapidus.
For accompanying Dianne Reeves, the best of the lot was Zach Lapidus. The way he played "Infant Eyes" (Wayne Shorter) in collaboration with the singer was something special.  Down Beat's correspondent called it "lapidary" (was the pun worth it?), but my metaphor would be drawn from quite a different realm — not stone-cutting, but gardening. Lapidus and Reeves worked the garden of "Infant Eyes" with botanists' commitment, patience and knowhow. I can't imagine from what depths the pianist was drawing his chords and phrases, but it was as though he was Reeves' doppelgänger — like a parallel self of the singer's, but expressed through the piano at the same time she was working her vocal self.

For working together with the BWJO, my choice is Sullivan Fortner (who in fact won the
He meant him: Sullivan Fortner played 'I Mean You' like nobody's business.
fellowship). Their performance together of Thelonious Monk's "I Mean You" was the swingingest thing I heard on the whole program. Fortner had plenty of chops to display, but his performance didn't seem to be about that. His interaction with the band didn't slacken for a second. His rhythmic acuity was marvelous, and the jumpy intensity of Brent Wallarab's arrangement (plus the band's performance) was matched at the keyboard beat for beat. Fortner was the only finalist I had not had the pleasure of hearing at all before my YouTube acquaintance with him at the finals. If he played like this every time out, no wonder he won.

As for the finalists I have not mentioned, they may have what's needed for careers in the music, but they impressed me mostly as knowledgeable assimilators, fleet of finger and stylistically savvy. In other words, worthy of their competition eminence but likely little more in the long term.

On to one of the series announced Monday by the Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel: I'm looking forward to most of the 2015-16 season there. I'll even get my hopes up for pianist Ramsey Lewis, insofar as he's  said to be celebrating his 50th anniversary of eminence, ever since he rose to fame with his jazz-lite style for "The 'In' Crowd" and "Hang On Sloopy." His professionalism is dependably smooth, unruffled and amiable, and with luck his program will avoid the easy way out he's taken in ending two previous engagements I've heard — a long, retrospective medley of his musical origins in Chicago's black churches. Sure, it's great he sees fit to honor his roots, but he can roll this stuff out by the yard, and it all sounds pretty glib after a while. Lewis will appear at the Palladium on Jan. 9.

Before that, I look forward with interest to hear how the Bad Plus — a trio that lays down the densest textures imaginable for the combination of piano, bass, and drums — accommodates a fourth player: saxophonist Joshua Redman, who (setting aside his star status) is not exactly a shrinking violet on the bandstand. That program opens the Palladium series on Oct. 18.

Violinist Regina Carter and pianist Kenny Barron turned out one of the best jazz duo recordings of the 21st century so far way back in 2001. I've sure got their Nov. 21 Palladium date penciled in on my calendar.

The star combinations continue when guitarist John Scofield adds luster to the Joe Lovano Quartet on Feb. 6.  Scofield has applied his substantial skills and distinctive sound across a broad spectrum of mainstream to jam-band expressions; the equally malleable veteran saxophonist should make an impressive partner for him in the front line.

Based on the versions I heard the Butler University Jazz Ensemble play in opening for the Christian McBride Trio during the recently concluded Butler ArtsFest, I'm eagerly anticipating the bassist's big-band arrangements as performed by the band he wrote them for. The Christian McBride Big Band comes to the Palladium on March 4.

Closing out the series is the San Francisco-based young-star ensemble, gifted both in arranging and soloing adeptness, known as the SFJAZZ Collective. The group was consciousness-expanding enough making creditable jazz statements out of the songs of Stevie Wonder a couple of seasons ago in this series. This time they will do something all their own with the songs of Michael Jackson.  Look for them nearly a year from now, on April 8, 2016.

The full fifth-season lineup in all the series at the Carmel showplace is available here.

Two worlds of J.S. Bach are sketched in Indianapolis Baroque Orchestra concert

The marketing image Indianapolis Baroque Orchestra has associated with "J.S. Bach: Sacred and Secular, Vocal and Instrumental" is a good deal jazzier than that sober concert title.

J.S. Bach: Baroque dude
It's worth noting that the composer's artistic profile finds more consistent expression across the sacred-secular divide than the jarring superimposition of shades, stingy-brim hat and hipster facial hair on his image suggests. But contemporary marketing follows its own laws, and if it can attract more people to two repeat performances elsewhere of Monday night's program at the University of Indianapolis, more power to it.

The 11-piece ensemble, exuding neatly deployed energy and refinement throughout, was led by its artistic director, Dutch-born early-music flute virtuoso Barthold Kuijken, who was also soloist in three of the four works.

The program's centerpiece for exhibiting the skills of both Kuijken and the band is the Orchestral Suite in B minor, the most sparingly orchestrated of Bach's four ensemble suites on the French model: solo flute, strings, and continuo are displayed across seven movements. An elaborate opening "Ouverture" is succeeded by shorter dance movements, in this case ending with the charming "Badinerie."

Monday's performance of that finale was cheerful, but a little staid. If any piece of music illustrates the "lighter and more humorous way of thought" Bach was capable of (according to an obituary quoted in the program), it's this movement, which goes over best when it sounds more playful.

Overall, the suite was quite attractively, if sedately, performed. Particularly admirable were the phrasing and balance of the Sarabande, and the slight billowing to the dynamics that enlivened the slow dance. The Ouverture showed immediately the rapport between Kuijken and the ensemble in tempo shifts as well as the clarity of all instrumental voices.

Augusta McKay Lodge is a master's candidate at IU.
Secular pieces dominate the program — no surprise considering that the presenter is an orchestral organization; Bach's religious music, with exceptions like the organ chorale preludes, requires singers. The most satisfying such piece Monday night was the Violin Concerto in A minor, with Augusta McKay Lodge, winner of the IBO's 2014 concerto competition, as soloist. Apart from a burble in the first movement, her performance was outstanding: animated, well-ornamented, radiantly in tune. Her evenness of phrasing, with no drooping at the ends, was particularly commendable in the Andante.

That contrasted with the concert's vocal soloist, soprano Julianne Baird, whose phrases tended to swell and fade internally and sometimes go into hiding at the ends in the sublime cantata "Ich habe genug" (with Kuijken's flute playing the oboe obbligato). In the first recitative, she often sounded breathy, as though she were conveying a secret rather than proclaiming sturdy faith in the expectation of heavenly reward.

There was no fading in the second recitative, fortunately, and the concluding aria indicated that her passagework was accurate and her intonation sound. But the hide-and-seek projection of the text was disconcerting: In a line like "Hier muss ich das Elend bauen" (here I must build, or cultivate, misery), for example, you don't want the word "bauen" to vanish (as it did), because the line is such a striking image of the text's world-weariness. To be condemned to grow a crop of misery — what a fate! We want to hear about it — sustain those phrases, please.

The program's novelty, the secular Italian cantata "Non sa che sia dolore," returned Baird to the stage, where both the pluses and minuses of her "Ich habe genug" performance were evident. From the opening Sinfonia on, the piece was indeed striking for what Kuijken's program note called its "very progressive Italianate style." The Vivaldian colors, lavish decorative writing for flute and voice, and the tone painting (especially in the final aria's supple rhythmic evocation of a boat gently rocking on the waves) indeed revealed an uncharacteristic side of Bach, if not one quite captured by that retro-Blues-Brothers poster image.

The program will be repeated at Franklin College on Wednesday and Indiana Landmarks Center Thursday. See the IBO website for details.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Shadows over paradise: IRT's 'On Golden Pond' is a comedy about loss held off

Few serious family comedies of the past 40 years have held the stage as successfully as "On Golden Pond." Indiana Repertory Theatre's season-ending production of the Ernest Thompson play supports its durability, thanks to a unity of vision and a stylistic restraint that avoids underlining the story's sentimentality.

Those of us who have never accumulated a half-century of memories about an idyllic summer home are ready to experience them vicariously as soon as we lay eyes on Robert M. Koharchik's set — sturdy, rustic, lived-in and backgrounded by a glimmering vista of sky and water. Whatever may threaten Norman and Ethel Thayer's continued happiness in their lakeside Maine home we are rooting for them to keep at bay.

Norman Thayer ignores Ethel's steady enthusiasm.
Trouble is, one of those threats is Norman's attitude as the couple return to their spacious, memento-rich cabin for another summer. The shuffling patriarch's mind is bent on his demise — an old preoccupation, according to Ethel. As his 80th birthday approaches, however, his vitality is sapped by enough health worries to justify this tendency. His caustic humor serves as the perfect accompaniment to a twilight he can't possibly welcome (who does?).

The role has always struck me as problematic. The character gets lots of laughs, some of them guilty pleasures, as you could tell by a few "oohs" from Sunday evening's audience. He's not evil, but he's fairly unlikable, and an actor has to do more than bask in the wisecracks to make the second-act pathos come through.

Norman is resolutely loved by his wife, despite her recurring exasperation, but seems bereft of other social connections. Ethel is an optimist forever caught up in the romance of long summers in the domesticated wild — the language of the loons, berry-picking adventures, delight in wildflowers. Norman has shed some of his old pleasures, or is only ready to indulge in them haphazardly. He is lucky to have her, but the audience is steadily invited to believe he doesn't deserve the luck.

An actor playing the old man has to respond to subtle indications that Norman isn't as irredeemable as he seems. With a history of being hard on the couple's only child, Chelsea, and his somewhat disdainful treatment of her persistent local suitor, the mail carrier Charlie Martin, Norman is secretly fighting to stave off death and find new reasons for living. In Robert Elliott's performance, his persistence is believable and even becomes worth cheering for.

Darrie Lawrence's portrayal of Ethel was capable of eliciting the audience's sympathy with her
Norman (Robert Elliott) sizes up Bill Ray (Ryan Artzberger).
reclamation project. Also crucial to it is a surprise juvenile house guest, Billy, the son of Chelsea's latest beau, a Los Angeles dentist named Bill Ray. Ryan Artzberger's performance was a nuanced study in awkwardness exacerbated by Norman's goading, turning into a display of grit that impresses his tormentor. Winningly played by Griffin Grider (who could have used a bit more California sass, however), Billy appeals to Norman's desire for new experiences he can believe in and lend some direction to. The teen is a willing pupil, yielding to the charm of the place and his crusty mentor while the dentist-boyfriend and Chelsea head off to Europe.

Working her way toward an equilibrium that has eluded her into middle age, Chelsea eventually steels herself to turn into Norman's loving daughter. Constance Macy's performance nicely modulated the strain imposed by Chelsea's return to Golden Pond, encountering all the old difficulties with her father and tempted to think nothing can change.

Charlie Martin reminisces with Chelsea and Ethel.
Yet change is always possible despite the odds. The production, under the direction of Janet Allen, creates an exciting tension as it seems to whisper "too late, too late." But there is something in Elliott's Norman Thayer that echoes the final lines of Randall Jarrell's poem "The Woman at the Washington Zoo." Lonelier than Norman, she silently implores the animals she sees around her for transformation — just as Norman extends a mute appeal to the Golden Pond loons and the other flora and fauna that so excite his wife: "You know what I was,/ You see what I am: change me, change me!"

Punctuating his memories with an infectious chuckle perfectly rendered in Charlie Clark's buoyant performance, the Golden Pond mailman suggests another lesson. If you can mark a few occasions in your life when you felt really special to people— as Charlie did decades ago whenever he brought the day's mail to the girls' camp down the pond — you've got the resources you need to change for the better, or simply accept the way things have turned out. IRT's "On Golden Pond" packs enough wisdom along with its fun to fill any summer you may have in mind, no matter where you spend it.

[production photos by Zach Rosing]

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Complexities of the German symphonic tradition sketched in ISO concert at the Palladium

Christoph Altstaedt, ISO guest conductor
All-orchestra concerts have a reputation for not drawing as well as concerts featuring guest soloists, and that truism seemed to be the case Friday night at Carmel's Palladium.

Lots of empty seats did not keep the fascinating program on paper from being brought to life well. Young German conductor Christoph Altstaedt, bouncy yet reserved, led the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra in pieces by Bach/Webern, Richard Wagner, and Felix Mendelssohn.

Some American sass was contributed by Stephen Bachicha, a composer associated with Rice University in Houston and the winner of this year's Marilyn K. Glick Young Composer's Showcase. Bachicha was on hand to acknowledge the applause after the ISO performed his "Allusions, Illusions & Delusions."

Companion to bustling strings in new work.
Bachicha's lively melange of salutes to composers he admires ("allusions") and a bumptious phantasmagoria ("illusions and delusions") was thoroughly entertaining. It scorned points of rest or second thoughts; it was a mover and shaker from first to last. The meandering flugelhorn melody that helps tie the piece together was a bit hard to follow on first hearing, so my sense of the work's cohesiveness remains somewhat vague. But there were lots of moment-to-moment thrills: How often do you hear a fugato episode for strings punctuated by the slapstick, for instance?

But back to the major focus of the program, which will be repeated tonight at the ISO's home, Hilbert Circle Theatre in downtown Indianapolis. Felix Mendelssohn was a devoted Lutheran; his wealthy family's conversion from Judaism was effected in his early childhood. Of course, his heritage did not save his reputation during the Nazi era, and gentile musicians the world over were among the many
Leipzig's Mendelssohn monument (restored)
music-lovers who deplored the pulling down of Leipzig's Mendelssohn monument in 1936.

His background may have something to do with the consensus that, among his two major oratorios, "Elijah" is a better piece than "St. Paul." But then, the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) has more good story material than the New Testament. There is no reason to question that what was originally a prudent decision to convert had by the time of the brilliant composer's adulthood been thoroughly absorbed.

His "Reformation" Symphony (No. 5 in D major) ascends to an expressive summit in the finale, with a chorale on "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God," introduced with warm expressiveness in Friday's performance by principal flutist Karen Moratz. Despite the way the strings (with the basses in their old Nelson-Leppard-period placement) settle into a complacent, jog-trot fugue before the peroration, the performance Altstaedt conducted at the Palladium made a good case for taking the work seriously and setting aside the composer's reputation as a lightweight.

Among the other nicknamed Mendelssohn symphonies, the D major will never replace the "Italian" or the "Scottish" in the public's affection. Still, it is full of lovely, well-managed material, particularly in the concise middle movements, which were scrupulously sculpted by the batonless Altstaedt. The seriousness of the more capacious first movement was never in doubt in this interpretation, and helped the work demonstrate how well it deserved its place among Bach and Wagner.

In fact, Wagner was an early admirer of Mendelssohn, particularly his conducting. Some of this admiration was surely connected to the rising opera composer's desire to have Mendelssohn's influence behind a Berlin production of "The Flying Dutchman." The elder composer was hardly fresh in the grave, however, before Wagner wrote his notorious essay "Jewishness in Music," a landmark of cultural anti-Semitism in the Austro-German world that was to come to full toxic flowering in the 1930s.

But late Wagner, in the form of "Good Friday Spell" and the Prelude from "Parsifal," was an inspired complement to the "Reformation" Symphony in this concert. The music's religiosity, cast in the form of the most advanced "endless melody" Wagner ever fashioned, bloomed impressively in the friendly acoustical environs of the Palladium. Altstaedt got consistent warmth from all sections of the orchestra, with every phrase linked to its neighbor.

What cast Mendelssohn as a conservative at a time when Wagner entertained revolutionary pretensions was in part his devotion to music of the past. The J.S. Bach revival was largely to his credit, and this lifting up of German art at the instigation of the scion of a prominent Jewish family  ironically triumphed in the long run. Anton Webern, whose politics in the Nazi era are not above reproach, saw his music as rooted in a tradition that Mendelssohn (as conductor) had much to do with restoring to health.

Webern's arrangement of Bach's ricercar "a 6 voci" from "The Musical Offering" is a peculiar fruit of his connection to that tradition. Its distribution of Bach's material around the orchestra emphasizes the independence of the strands that the original setting blends. You can see how everything works in  Webern's setting, which reminds me of a huge, transparent plastic model of the internal-combustion engine placed on a rotating pedestal in AutoWorld, the failed tourist attraction in my hometown of Flint, Michigan. Pumping pistons, sparking spark plugs, rhythmically sliding valves, rising and falling camshaft — everything was there, lofty and well-lit.

That's the kind of tribute Webern makes to Bach's music. The ISO played the piece well except for a few inadequately sustained phrases. And the arrangement has survived longer than AutoWorld (opened in 1984, demolished in 1997), which gives hope for art over expensive civic boosterism. But that's fortunately not an even contest, is it?