Saturday, March 29, 2014

Late sub for scheduled guest conductor shapes a stirring "Romeo and Juliet" concert by Indianapolis Symphony

When Michael Francis had to withdraw from this weekend's Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra concerts because of injury, Taiwanese-born Mei-Ann Chen stepped in. Distinguished from the start of her 25-year U.S. residency by having been the first musician to earn simultaneous master's degrees from New England Conservatory in violin and conducting, Chen has accumulated other honors since.

Chen displayed an acute rhythmic sense and interpretive exuberance in a program of Bernstein, Prokofiev and Delius Friday night.  The marketable theme is the imperishable story of Romeo and Juliet as set down by Shakespeare in the romantic tragedy of the playwright's early maturity.

ISO guest conductor Mei-Ann Chen
Two of the pieces attest to the play's adaptability to other circumstances besides the Montague-Capulet feud in Renaissance Verona. Young love against rustic social strictures in the opera "A Village Romeo and Juliet" lies behind Delius' "A Walk to the Paradise Garden." And conflict between rival youth gangs in 1950s New York City plays out tragically in "West Side Story," the Symphonic Dances of which fill out the first half of this weekend's program.

After intermission, we get back to direct inspiration from Shakespeare — despite the happy ending the composer originally wrote, then discarded under pressure. Sergei Prokofiev's music for a ballet version of "Romeo and Juliet" had a difficult gestation in that form, but three suites compiled from it have been favorably received in the concert hall for many years. And choreographers have ignored the initial resistance to the score as acceptable ballet music ever since. The ISO concerts take selections from all three suites.

Lousy with talent though he was, Prokofiev's ability to produce masterpieces was mixed. In the excerpts as played Friday, one marveled anew at the stunning representation of street fighting and personal disaster in "The Death of Tybalt." Friday's performance was breathtaking, and when applause greeted the episode's conclusion, Chen turned affably to the audience and advised: "Go ahead!"

On the other hand, one wants the lovers' leave-taking to be sublime, but there's little even a conductor as skilled as Chen can do to prevent "Romeo at Juliet's Before Parting" from overstaying its welcome. It's the only place in Prokofiev's musical narrative that one keenly misses Shakespeare's words.

The Balcony Scene was exquisitely balanced and played with ardor, and the gaudy, brash Minuet (qualities not usually associated with that dance form) had impressive heft and animation.

In the "West Side Story" Symphonic Dances, Chen's alertness to the score's overall rhythmic drive and its multiple subdivisions was unfailing. She displayed a wide spectrum of gestures, perhaps on the verge of overcueing, but for the most part precisely attentive to the music's essence. She was  just being scrupulous in all matters of detail, especially percussive. The orchestra responded idiomatically to her in music they've played often. The musicians responded to Chen's fresh ideas about the piece as well, especially in finding the lyrical heart beneath the Prelude's aggressive sonorities.

The program's curtain-raiser, Delius' pastel meditation on the doomed lovers in a village setting, featured a slew of tender wind solos, starting with the ISO's peerless oboe and going on to bassoon, English horn, clarinet, horn and flute. The tragedy's basic simplicity came through in the English composer's peculiarly warm handling of the orchestra, right up through the hushed ending.

Given the story's somber outcome, the most striking similarity of the three pieces is their quiet conclusions. Each of those individualistic approaches to the final double bar had magical resonance in Friday's stirring concert.