Saturday, March 8, 2014

Three Russian warhorses get a good ride from Krzysztof Urbanski and the ISO

The ISO's guest solo artist, Anna Vinnitskaya
The predictable enthusiasm that the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra roused in the course of its concert Friday got a built-in boost from the presence of Honor Orchestra of America members and their parents in the audience.

So the Hilbert Circle Theatre rafters rang with a good measure of youthful cheering after performances of Mussorgsky's "Night on Bald Mountain," Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, and Stravinsky's 1945 Firebird Suite.

The Honor Orchestra, a national youth ensemble with headquarters in Indianapolis, had played a short program of works by Glinka and Shostakovich beforehand, making for a lengthy all-Russian evening.

The ISO's regular subscription concert opened with the Mussorgsky tone poem, evoking a folk superstition that a witches' sabbath was observed every St. John's Eve (June 23) on a mountain near Kiev, a city that is more in today's consciousness than normal, and not for supernatural revelry.

Execution adhered to a high level from the start, with tense, even string tremolos establishing the atmosphere. By the time their whirring energy introduced the thundering low-brass theme, the excitement was thoroughly engaged. The clarity that music director Krzysztof Urbanski drew from the orchestra emphasized Rimsky-Korsakov's colorful orchestration.  Suddenly it became evident in the well-worn score what a common thread runs straight from this chestnut through the "Firebird" music, written by Rimsky-Korsakov's prize pupil.

After the diabolical mountaintop partying dissipates with the arrival of dawn, the subsiding music that concludes "Night on Bald Mountain" was slightly marred Friday night: The solo flute was flat in its unison with the tolling chime, though its higher-register solo later, following a beautifully rendered clarinet solo, seemed on pitch.

The Rachmaninoff, one of the most popular of concerted works for solo piano and orchestra, enjoyed the benefit of Anna Vinnitskaya's galvanic playing in a brilliantly collaborative reading. The piece has loads of charm, but some interpretations take this as a cue to emphasize facility and a blithe spirit. Yet the music also sojourns through authentic darkness, beginning but not ending with its signature employment of the "Dies irae" chant.

Vinnitskaya conveyed the idea that serious matters such as the fate of human souls are under discussion here. She was blithe enough when that was called for, but her lightness of touch was set against all the glowering contrasts it needed. Called back for an encore, the soloist offered a transcription of a Bach organ prelude.

The 1945 "Firebird" suite uses "pantomime" episodes from the full ballet score that flesh out a Russian folk myth: A magical bird visits a prince and bestows on him a feather that turns out to have immense evil-battling powers. There was a patience and breadth to the early part of the ballet that helped us hear the story with fresh ears.

With theatrical economy, Urbanski signaled the sudden thump and blare of the monster Kastchei's "Infernal Dance" with the tiniest of gestures. As in the ballet, we were meant to feel dark forces descend upon the garden idyll all at once. It sure worked Friday: Concertgoers visibly shuddered and jumped in their seats.

There are hardly adequate words to describe how the ISO poured out the balm spread by the Firebird as Kastchei and his minions fall asleep, allowing the prince to capture the bad king's soul. The tremolos leading into the final wedding celebration of the prince and his intended were magical, and the swelling of that theme became overpowering by the time the cadence of the seven most memorable chords in 20th-century music concluded the concert.

This weekend's program gets a more thorough workout before the public than usual. In addition to an abbreviated (no Mussorgsky) performance at Thursday morning's Coffee Concert, there were full-length presentations here Friday and Saturday, plus a free repeat Sunday afternoon at Indiana University in Bloomington. That such a program automatically attracts people in droves is especially to be celebrated when the performance standard is so high and individualized.