Tuesday, November 5, 2013

A French painter's artistic breadth drives the collaborative start to Ronen Chamber Ensemble's 30th season

Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863) made some of the grandest, most detailed paintings of French romanticism, yet he often took up the cudgels for simplicity in art.  He deplored showy complexity and grandstanding.

Eugene Delacroix, who knew what he liked.
A devotee of music and a friend of Chopin in Paris of the 1840s, Delacroix in his fascinating journal casts scorn upon Berlioz and Meyerbeer, major figures in the French capital,  and holds up as exemplary the music of Mozart and (up to a point) Beethoven.

 "The so-called geniuses of the present day are nothing but the ghosts of earlier writers, painters, and musicians," he wrote in 1855. "Full of affectations and absurdity, their bad taste matches their pretentiousness."

Ronen Chamber Ensemble collaborated with the Faculty Artist series at the University of Indianapolis Monday night on a program called "From the Journal of Delacroix."  Musical selections, generally excerpted from longer works, came from the world that the artist knew and approved of. Slides of his art were projected on a screen to one side of the Lilly Performance Hall stage at UIndy's DeHaan Center.

Narration to set the artist and his viewpoints in context was provided by soprano and vocal faculty member Kathleen Hacker and local actor Noah Winston.

As Winston told the audience, Delacroix was particularly fond of Domenico Cimarosa, composer of the occasionally still revived comic opera, "The Secret Marriage." "Such perfection is rarely found among the works of man," the painter asserted in his journal. Hacker gave a charming performance of the aria "Perdonato, signor mio," with Gregory Martin at the piano.

As a diarist, Delacroix took umbrage at others' stinging viewpoints, particularly when they attacked something he held dear. Of a conversationalist who called Cimarosa "an old fossil," Delacroix the diarist sputtered: "I hate men like this. And most of all I hate this pretense of candor that allows people to give vent to trenchant or wounding opinions."

Some of the following may come close to wounding, despite my general satisfaction with the program.  I will press ahead, haunted by the program honoree's anticipatory indignation. Winston, a capable actor, ought to have been better prepared: No stumbles when reading a text in front of him should have occurred, especially considering that he rose to the expressive occasion from time to time. Martin's appearance throughout the program gave ample opportunity to appreciate his collegial qualities, but the accompaniments could have been livelier and more colorfully characterized.

In the concert finale, David Bellman made up for a rare departure from his usual impeccable playing in a movement from Donizetti's Concertino in B-flat for Clarinet and Piano, which opened the program.  The concluding piece was Sesto's aria from "La Clemenza di Tito," the opera seria Mozart wrote in his last year, with its remarkable clarinet obbligato.   Bellman complemented Hacker's brief immersion in "my first pants role" with aplomb in some of Mozart's best writing for the instrument (outside the Clarinet Concerto and the Quintet for Clarinet and Strings).

Another program highlight was Ronen co-founder Ingrid Fischer-Bellman's tender playing of the "Largo" movement from Chopin's Cello Sonata, one of his few ventures beyond his imperishable contributions to the solo piano repertoire.

Kudos to this collaborative concert for shedding more light on a major figure that concertgoers in particular may not know well. It's always interesting to dig beneath the cliches of the Romantic temperament.  Who, for example, is likely to suspect that the creator of "The Death of Sardanapalus" and "Liberty Leading the People" also confided to his diary such a pure expression of the Enlightenment as this?:

"The greatest genius is simply a superlatively rational human being."