Saturday, September 28, 2013

ISO opens Classical Series with showcase Chopin, provocative Prokofiev

The dependable comfort level that comes with Garrick Ohlsson playing Chopin would not have been enough by itself to lift his performance of the Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor to the special plane it occupied  Friday night at Hilbert Circle Theatre.

The towering pianist, in the front rank of American concert artists for more than 40 years, worked hand-in-glove with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra and music director Krzysztof Urbanski, countryman of the composer. There was a certain suppleness and joyous give-and-take between podium and piano. Ohlsson and Urbanski exchanged smiles in mid-flight at the start of the third movement, which had a wealth of smooth tempo adjustments, nothing jerky about any one of them.
Garrick Ohlsson was in his element Friday.

From the stately orchestra introduction to the first movement, with its well-shaped, drooping phrases in the main theme, to the aristocratic dash of the finale, this was a cherishable performance.

Such a spectrum of tonal color as Ohlsson got from the instrument rarely comes across in such a large space as the ISO's home. The soloist's deft pedaling touch helped generate a bright, singing tone without glare. And having recently heard a famous pianist who stamps his individuality on everything, I was pleased to savor a distinctive interpretation that didn't put a premium on the performer's personal brand. This was Chopin without customizing.

The expansiveness of the concerto left no time for another piece in the first half, except for the encore Ohlsson offered: Chopin's Waltz in C-sharp minor, Op. 64, No. 2.  Being unaccompanied, of course, this was an especially free interpretation. It wasn't a waltz you could dance to, except in the imagination, where you swept across the floor under Ohlsson's suave guidance. The performance had color and animation, and you could always feel the pulse beneath the music's laced and perfumed wrists.

The concert's second half consisted of Sergei Prokofiev's greatest symphony, No. 5 in B-flat.  This amazing work has been a hit the world over since its premiere in 1945. The composer attached a statement to it typical of the times, as the end of humanity's worst war approached. The music "[praises] the free and happy man —  his strength, his generosity, and the purity of his soul," he wrote.

Krzysztof Urbanski reaches for something extra in Prokofiev.
But the triumphant progress of the composition is genuine and superbly laid out, and needs no verbal support. The "Allegro giocoso" finale lives up to the jollity of its name; it is triumphant without the banality (Copland's Third) or the bombast (Shostakovich's Fifth) that mars some of the best contemporary symphonies in their last movements. Every statement of the perky clarinet theme lifts the spirits; the effect never failed in Friday's performance. The passage in which the divided cellos ruminate briefly on the first-movement theme provided a wonderful respite from the reigning exuberance.

The second-movement scherzo — Prokofiev at his most deucedly clever — proceeded in an atmosphere of heightened excitement. Nonetheless, an underlying anxiety, a kind of pressure normally foreign to this composer, was brought to bear here that didn't seem entirely authentic. In this movement and occasionally elsewhere, I felt Urbanski came close to presenting Prokofiev through a Shostakovichian filter.

The older composer never strayed far from projecting a persona of being the brightest boy in the room, "a chilly character," in Michael Steinberg's apt phrase. Capable of stirring genuine feeling, Prokofiev's music nonetheless has a cool demeanor that must be respected interpretively. There was nothing sloppy about the ISO's performance Friday; the score's intricacies were adroitly handled. But the risk of overheating was boldly taken on, too. I'll grudgingly credit Urbanski and the orchestra for providing an additional emotional charge by courting that very danger. Yet I retain my doubts that this performance spoke truly in the composer's idiom.

The program will be repeated today at 5:30 p.m.