Saturday, February 22, 2014

Most formidable pianist-Hoosier-by-adoption Andre Watts returns to the Indianapolis Symphony schedule

Serious, substantial music generated an abundance of joy at Friday's Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra concert.

The performances of Andre Watts at the piano and Krzysztof Urbanski on the podium get the credit for spanning such a wide expressive range so well. Works as enthralling as Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major and Dvorak's Symphony No. 7 in D minor don't play themselves, so interpreters of this stature, buoyed by an Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra in fine fettle, are required to seal the deal.


The world-class 67-year-old pianist, approaching a decade of service on the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music faculty, is a Hoosier by adoption — luckily for us. He has been in the public eye and ear for as long as the Rolling Stones, and produced much better music. His performances carry an elder-statesman veneer without scanting either freshness or depth.

Andre Watts is always welcome here.
After a spate of smudged chords in his opening cadenza, Watts could do no wrong Friday night. He played with accuracy, authority and energy, while bringing to the fore the delicacy and sweetness the score requires.  His trills were thundering or gossamer as the occasion demanded. In the fourth movement, the evenness of the passagework and the lightness with which he brought off all the filigree helped characterize the piece's mercurial breadth.

Yet most of the performance's excellence was collaborative. All string sections acquitted themselves well, the timpani were top-of-the-beat and robust, the winds vivid and flavorful.  In the Andante, the lovely chamber-music passage of clarinet, bassoon and piano just before the solo cello returns with its movement-defining melody could have coaxed tears from the most stoic of listeners. And those cello solos unfolded with silken individuality as played by this week's candidate for the first-chair position.

But finally, what the classic music analyst Donald Francis Tovey wrote about the last movement of the Brahms Second could be applied to this performance of the whole piece: "There are no adequate words for it (there never are for any art that is not itself words — and then there are only its own words)." A cautionary note for all critics! (On a less exalted note, Charles Schulz in "Peanuts" once had Lucy complain about a tune she couldn't get out of her head. Schroeder replies that he's experiencing the same thing, and asks: "Is it that part in the Brahms Second where the piano goes deedle-deedle-deedle, and then...?" As I recall, in the last panel, Lucy stomps off, exclaiming: "I can't stand it!")

After intermission came the soberest exposition of Dvorak's symphonic genius.  The D minor symphony doesn't seem to me as glum as the program book's notes characterize it, but the music is imbued with a seriousness that has its moments of deep shadow. Still, the exhilaration of inventiveness and color keep breaking through.

I'll start with some small indication of the burgeoning greatness of Urbanski as a conductor: the way he handled the off-balance opening of the third movement.  There seemed to be no awkwardness about how the strings responded to the subtle gesture with which he got the music going. It was almost a shrug, but it was clearly the product of careful communication. It was enough to set the whole movement's graceful mood and give an air of relaxation to its frequent billowing and subsiding.

In the first movement, Urbanski got the orchestra to outline the hierarchy of the main theme's components. The dynamic variety throughout was impressive. In the finale, the dramatic tension of its structure was fully exploited. Brahms, who sensibly admired Dvorak enough to get the Bohemian composer carried by his Berlin publisher, often moved in a similar emotional world. But he never orchestrated this resourcefully and clearly. Illustrating that fact was among the triumphs of the ISO's performance, which hopefully can be duplicated in the program's repeat at 5:30 p.m. today.