Saturday, November 16, 2013

French masterpieces enliven the penultimate Classical Series weekend of 2013

The often-twinned stars of early 20th century French music are showcased in this weekend's Classical Series program — rare in that the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra plays three Debussy-Ravel concerts on successive days, concluding with a shortened Sunday afternoon performance in a "Student and Teacher Appreciation" outreach with discounted tickets.

The revolutionary musical language of Claude Debussy and its classicizing successor in the output of Maurice Ravel are the focus of the program, with guest conductor Carlo Rizzi conducting works featuring the Indianapolis Children's Choir and two soprano soloists.

ISO's "damozel": Isabel Bayrakdarian
Debussy's foreground in late French romanticism shows amid firm signs of a burgeoning personal style in "La Damoiselle elue" (The Blessed Damozel), his 1894 cantata on a French translation of Dante Gabriel Rosetti's poem. The work brought to the Hilbert Circle Thearte stage two outstanding sopranos: Isabel Bayrakdarian in the title role and Christine Brandes as the Narrator.

The piece opens with an orchestral prelude in the pious manner of Cesar Franck, and the chorus' concluding "sigh" brings back the churchy quality, wafting aural incense. In between, the composer explores dramatic and reflective aspects of the text, rising to operatic heights in the monologue of the damozel in heaven, hoping for a reunion with her earthly lover that is destined not to happen.

Bayrakdarian was superb in the monologue, her brilliance and intensity of expression immediately apparent. She projected the heavenly soul's fervor for solace beyond the grave, daring to find her personal heavenly reward insufficient, but keeping the mood of humble beseeching intact. Brandes is required to carry the narrative forward, in approximate alternation with the choir; it's a subordinate role, but demands effective diction and low-key sympathy with the plight of the damozel. These qualities were brought forward well in Friday's concert.

Even given the absence of any text in "Nocturnes," the ICC faced greater challenges of pitch and phrasing in that three-part masterpiece, the concluding movement of which depicts the islanded sirens of ancient legend, luring sailors off course at sea with their song. I had to set aside the fact that the erotic pull of the wordless chorus is basic to the ancient myth. Usually adult women are employed in this role, and here there were kids floating a seductive song high above the orchestra. This forces the listener to subscribe to a more abstract view of the peril the sirens pose. The children did their work well, save for occasional flatting.

In "Nocturnes" we see the revolutionary quality of Debussy more elaborately than even the iconic "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun."  The opening movement — "Nuages" (Clouds) — is a landmark in new ways of musically evoking nature, especially how it looks and how it moves. The first minute of the piece lays out everything new in Debussy's harmonic language.

It's as strong a calling card as a slightly later piece that generated another branch of modernism, Schoenberg's "Summer Morning by a Lake/Colors" from Five Pieces for Orchestra. Both works announce: "Pay attention — the essence of my music is here all at once, almost like looking at a painting. Who needs 'development'? What rounds out the work beyond the first minute is just a necessary confirmation of what I'm all about." "Nuages" was gloriously played, keyed to Roger Roe's solo English horn.

The second movement — "Fetes" (Festivals) — presents another side of Debussy's mastery, much imitated by other composers. It showed how his new musical language could represent music of the street and social occasions at the cultural midpoint between folk music and art music. Rizzi sensitively guided the orchestra's weaving of a variegated tapestry of celebration.

The aforementioned finale — "Sirenes" (Sirens) — amazingly bests its "Nocturnes" companions. A work of genius in its pacing and its motivic use of melodic cells, this movement shows that even a harmonic framework with little in the way of resolution can give structure and momentum to a large-scale composition. The movement's swaying signature melody is transformed into some climaxes as convincing as anything in Late Romanticism, and the eventual subsiding of all this suspense becomes all the more impressive as the keynote is finally settled upon at the edge of silence. "Sirenes" is the fully worthy herald of "La Mer," an even greater work building on Debussy's discoveries in this one. The ISO and ICC account of it was thoroughly moving.

Two works by Ravel bookend the program, which will be repeated in full at 5:30 p.m. today.  "Le Tombeau de Couperin" made for an attractive appetizer, some blurriness in string articulation notwithstanding.  The winds sounded good: The springy angularity of the wind-instrument lines shone in "Forlane." The following "Menuet" was nicely phrased, though a bit slow. Principal oboist Jennifer Christen registered another winning solo outing in the contrasting section of the vigorous finale, "Rigaudon."

"La Valse," the more endurable of Ravel's two extended elaborations of a single rhythm (the less so being "Bolero") concluded the concert in captivating fashion — with a scary edge of mania. The latter quality is apparent from the low rumble with which it opens (I wonder if John Williams was thinking of this when he wrote the "Jaws" music that catapulted him to stardom as a film composer). Tempo shifts, including the broadening and little hesitations proper to the waltz idiom, were well-managed. The galvanic energy of the score's concluding pages was overwhelming.