Saturday, May 17, 2014

Pianist-conductor Barry Douglas brings his powerful approach to the German mainstream with the ISO

Focus on the center of the symphonic tradition is never amiss when the light that's shined upon it is as committed and forthright as it was Friday night at Hilbert Circle Theatre. That's when Barry Douglas filled the roles of conductor and pianist in a program of Schumann, Mozart and Beethoven to be repeated this afternoon at 5:30.

Douglas  chose three works in which the contrasts of light and shade are conspicuous. Although his interpretations were capable of subtlety, he does not seem to be an artist at home in the gray areas. There was nothing neutral about his expressive manner, and he brought the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra along with him with almost unfailing unanimity.

Barry Douglas is this weekend's guest artist.
Conducting from the keyboard, Douglas led a gripping performance of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 25 in C major, K. 503. He crowned the noble first movement with a formidable cadenza, harmonically adventuresome but not outlandish for Mozart. Since no cadenzas by the composer have survived, it was easy to infer that this one came from the guest soloist himself. It was fully consonant with his artistic personality, and it billowed excitingly up to the re-entry of the main theme.

Douglas shaped lovely orchestral tutti passages when his hands were off the keyboard. In the second movement, slight tempo shifts were managed quite well even when he was playing. With the lid of the piano removed and Douglas facing the orchestra, the connection with his collaborators was optimal. The sound of the Steinway grand was more resonant than usual, sometimes thickening the sound of the solo instrument. Fortunately, the bigger sound suited this work better than it might have some of the earlier concertos.

With his flowing mane and Byronic good looks, Douglas seemed especially well-suited to open with Schumann's interpretation of a popular Lord Byron poem, "Manfred." The overture Schumann composed was originally designed, along with companion pieces, for the theater. It survives with its drama of a solitary, miserable Alpine wanderer rendered more than adequately in orchestral form. The composer's free-floating anxiety drew from his muse a sympathetic portrait of struggle and despair. The ISO's performance was generally well-knit, with the subdued final measures hauntingly rounded off.

After intermission came a nicely detailed, brightly impelled performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 4 in B-flat. The first movement's slow introduction, always suspenseful when a conductor avoids plodding, made the desired effect in opening up to the main section. The dialogue between first and second violins in the Adagio was effectively pinpointed, and dynamic shifts throughout the performance were well-judged and derived organically.

True, the opening of the Scherzo, while rhythmically lively, was not crisply pointed, chiefly because of some lagging in the violins.. The firsts also weren't in sync with Douglas' slowing tempo near the end of the Schumann.

Otherwise, it was a good night for the ISO as it approaches the end of the classical season. A guest conductor with charisma who also knows his stuff can accomplish such a result and keep fans eagerly anticipating the orchestra's predictably boffo finale the first week in June, when music director Krzysztof Urbanski is back on the podium and home boy Joshua Bell returns as violin soloist.