Friday, May 31, 2013

It's game on! at the symphony this weekend

Wearing the old-maestro mantle is not composer William Bolcom's style.  In his newest piece, at least, there is no autumnal quality, no mellow summing-up or assumption of an elder-statesman pose. It's just as well his muse is cheeky, given the difficult position classical music occupies in the larger culture. Newly turned 75, Bolcom never seems to have cared for categorical thinking in musical theory or practice. Why should he start now?

Games and Challenges: 'Something Wonderful Right Away received its world premiere Friday night from Time for Three and the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, conducted by music director Krzysztof Urbanski. The work looks backward only insofar as its inspiration is Bolcom's involvement a half-century ago with the improvisational-theater ideas that led to Second City and many less famous applications of games and spontaneous scenes. It's not about nostalgia, but rather the fresh application of some durable performance ideas.

Applied to music, such theatrical language requires enormous flexibility on the part of the participants, not to mention an ample supply of good material.  It was no surprise to note once again that Time for Three has this quality to spare, but to see such spirited cooperation from the whole orchestra, with no apparent loss in ensemble quality, was heartening. 

Gifted mimes at the start, the ISO musicians entered from the wings, meandering among the chairs, looking about in wonder, merging their initial soundlessness with a soft staccato pulse, then chanting "Indianapolis, and the Acropolis" — sonorous nonsense from a piece by William Walton to verse by Edith Sitwell. If that choice of text was an ironic commentary on depleted meanings of the word "classical" in a contemporary context, it worked:  It set up acceptance that something so absurd as linking the Circle City with a famous ancient hill in Athens might also be something wonderful, and right away, too.

Time for Three, clad in streetwear and behaving like a comical juvenile gang that just happens to play string instruments divinely, dominated the front of the stage after Urbanski's shouted "Play ball!" made clear that even the most free-form games need a few rules. Zach De Pue, Nick Kendall and Ranaan Meyer put forth several virtuoso outbursts amid the foolery in the course of the 25-minute work.

Whether vying for supremacy in a hoedown context or being vaguely soulful in a spoof of high art called "Poetry," Time for Three not only seemed to thoroughly know the work, but also to have come into existence as a band trailing clouds of Bolcomesque glory, just waiting to express it all in "Games and Challenges" in physical comedy and solid musicianship.

William Bolcom and Joan Morris in lobby



Particularly impressive about Bolcom's composition is how well the succession of nine games and challenges fits together.  The theatrical reach of the piece is so broad, with so many gestural and musical components, that one came to it expecting at best a charming mosaic.  But in performance it seemed tightly put together, an oratorio of purposeful fun.  It also struck me as much more than musically off-hand, despite the homage it pays to off-hand art and its rewards. The coherence was of a high order, whether  the course went through the authoritative percussion and brass as king and court in "Diplomacy" or in the hubbub brought to a boil by the woodwinds in "A Gibberish Scherzo."

The piece's fun-loving flow never sounded overcalculated, nor did the parade of staged events seem to thwart what symphony orchestras are all about or give way to musical anarchy in the service of Bolcom's inspiration in the work of Paul Sills, Viola Spolin and Andre Hajdu. One despairs of an eventual sound recording capturing the work as it is meant to be enjoyed, but even in that limited form, the piece has enough integrity and communicative power to win fans far and wide. 

The program's second half was devoted to music of George Gershwin, of whom Bolcom and his wife, mezzo-soprano Joan Morris (they have been in town all week) are seasoned exponents. Awadagin Pratt was on hand as soloist in Rhapsody in Blue, offering a far from crystalline performance that had other virtues. It was ruminative, aggressive and whimsical by turns; there was lots of left-hand emphasis to lend the well-known piece a sense of coming out of native soil, not pulled from the air as the word "rhapsody" often connotes. Gershwin's original transmutation of black American music was genuine and nonexploitative, and we need performances like this one now and then to remind us of that fact.

Urbanski led a polished accompaniment that stayed in rapport with Pratt's sometimes headlong manner. He and the ISO then closed the program with "An American in Paris," presenting an incredibly detailed account of the picturesque score.  Boisterouness and suavity were well balanced against some tender solo playing, chiefly from principal guest concertmaster Alexander Kerr and new principal trumpeter Ryan Beach. Acute rhythmic sensitivity was on display throughout: the soft shuffle of percussion that introduces the plaintive trumpet solo was particularly seductive Friday night. All told, it seems  the fresh vision of a Pole in Indianapolis had something new to bring to An American in Paris.