Saturday, April 5, 2014

Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra program: Solo spotlights out front and from within the orchestra

Hans Graf leads concerts focusing on Stravinsky.

Programs like the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's this weekend expose the emptiness of the deplorable implication that musicians are interchangeable, and that managements enjoy a buyer's market as fit, eager graduates continue to pour out of conservatories and universities.

That view was actually voiced from the management side in the recent Minnesota Orchestra controversy. The special quality of particular musicians — colleagues that can boast experience playing together as well as individual expertise —  is being showcased in two ISO concerts.

Hans Graf, an Austrian conductor who has achieved good results with the ISO several times over the years, returns to the Hilbert Circle Theatre podium for the program. During the first half Friday evening, he was an affable, informative host as personnel shifts took place behind him to accommodate the varied repertoire.

After intermission, he returned and, without commentary, launched into the program's one substantial masterpiece, Stravinsky's "Petrouchka." Notes on the work in the program book provided guidance to the ballet for which Stravinsky composed the score. I hope audiences read them, because this composition — while standing on its own in the concert hall — benefits from acquaintance with the scenario.

The title character is a lovelorn puppet, resentful of a fellow puppet (the Moor) and his coarse attentions to a third member of the show, a Ballerina. The magician-puppeteer who puts them through their paces at a traditional Russian fair on Mardi Gras, or Shrovetide, is somewhat out of control when it comes to puppet romance, as the ballet ends in Petrouchka's death at the hands of the brutal Moor. That demise doesn't count, however, the appearance of Petrouchka's ghost in the final measures: He thumbs his nose at the puppeteer, the Moor, and probably the indifferent world of revelers as well.

The 1947 revision Stravinsky made of his 1911 score highlights the piano, played with panache Friday by Sylvia Patterson Scott.  Concertmaster Zach De Pue's brief solos were also vivid and intense, matching his consistently involved commitment to the position he occupies. There were several fine woodwind cameos, including those of Roger Roe (English horn), Karen Moratz (flute), David Bellman (clarinet) and Jennifer Christen (oboe).

The complex rhythmic and melodic interplay was managed well, and the ever-shifting balances gave a fine depiction of both the puppet interactions and the exhilarating "impersonal bustle," in D. Kern Holoman's phrase, of Shrovetide Fair. I've often thought that, despite the pre-modern folkloric elements of "Petrouchka," Stravinsky sensed the modern, abstract excitement of large crowds (think Super Bowl, Indianapolis) and conveyed it on a musical canvas better than anyone, without applying a thick emotional impasto.

Despite the sure command Graf communicated to the orchestra, getting in return a generally high level of response, Friday's "Petrouchka" had its cloudy moments, as if a mischief-maker had turned on a fog machine. Some of the murk may be attributed to the acoustical cramping of the Circle Theatre stage, which will never be ideal for symphonic music. Thus, it was a considerable pleasure, not only because of the fine performance, to hear Richard Strauss' early Serenade for Thirteen Winds. Placed toward the back of the stage in roughly their normal, full-orchestra positions, this compatible baker's dozen simply blossomed.

Back to the marquee soloists: An early trumpet entrance in the "evening" Fair music ("Petrouchka"'s fourth tableau) seemed an echo of the misfortune that had visited soloist Ryan Beach in Aaron Copland's "Quiet City," the program's first showcase for ISO "stars".  A clam up high against a moody tapestry of strings marred a performance that otherwise showcased his forthright, somewhat acidic tone. Against it was poised the suavity of the other solo instrument, Roe's English horn.

Another deft string-orchestra accompaniment supported principal harpist Diane Evans in Debussy's Danse sacree et danse profane. Her way of contrasting melody and background was insightful, the tone colors were exquisite, and her articulation had clarity without compromising the sweet allure of either dance.

Minor Stravinsky of straightforward appeal opened and closed the first half. Scherzo a la russe made for a bumptious, witty curtain-raiser, and the tunefulness and rhythmic verve of Suite No. 2 had Graf drawing from the orchestra a wealth of vivid color, especially in the suggestive finale, Galop. In these works, Stravinsky expertly displays a gift for fun and liveliness while indicating that deep feeling may well be beside the point when it comes to having a good time.