Saturday, June 7, 2014

Two musical stars with long-range buzz share the spotlight in Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's classical season finale

Joshua Bell builds on his legacy.
For a composer who was quickly and permanently lionized by his countrymen, Jean Sibelius carried a nagging sense of failure throughout his long life. In his Violin Concerto — the centerpiece of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's Classical Series finale this weekend — the focus of his shortcomings is palpable regret about not being a violin virtuoso.

Many commentators have pointed this out, as well as calling attention to the odd manner in which Sibelius manipulated the work's premiere, almost ensuring a debut marred by a journeyman fiddler's performance. Masters of the violin have taken the piece up over the past century, however, up through such performances as the one Joshua Bell offered Friday night at Hilbert Circle Theatre.

The Bloomington native dependably blended vulnerability and bravado in his interpretation. At 46, Bell has balanced those qualities so enchantingly that he could be called the Frank Sinatra of the violin: There is both "Only the Lonely" and "Sinatra at the Sands" in his psychological makeup as an artist. The Sibelius concerto provides opportunities to express the full range of such qualities, especially when they are linked to a technique as assured as Bell's.

Krzysztof Urbanski and the ISO provided a sympathetic setting, from the first notes — the violin sections' muted murmur — to the final threefold thump punctuating an ascending sequence for the soloist. The first movement's torrential orchestra tuttis were expertly judged — convulsive passages both answered and anticipated by the soloist. Bell's reading of the cadenza was stylish and galvanic, and by the end of the movement his crisp rhythms and laser-like tone had captured the composer's bold side.

The second movement emphasized the wistfulness of the failed concert artist who chose to sublimate his feelings about the path closed to him by giving generations of better violinists his tenderest melody. Nobody wrote more eloquently for paired woodwinds than Sibelius, and the ISO players rose to the occasion to introduce the soloist's entrance, with its aching nostalgia embodied in Bell's playing. At the end of that movement, the horns likewise blended superbly, though not quite as softly as the score indicates.

The finale opened at too fast a pace. You needn't subscribe to the beloved description of this music as "a polonaise for polar bears" to find that some heaviness is needed at the start to represent the movement's unique character. Despite the virtuosity required of the soloist, this isn't one of those whirlwind finales of which so many of Sibelius' violin-concerto predecessors were fond.

The marking is "Allego ma non tanto," and there was some scanting of the "but not too much" suggestion; still, there were admirable adjustments of the tempo as the movement proceeded. But flashiness, of which Bell is amply capable, isn't of prime significance here. Fortunately, there was enough sturdiness and drive in the performance to maintain the score's groundedness (doggedly represented in the lower strings) while keeping the forward motion thrilling.

The concert opened with six first-desk ISO string players presenting the tidily constructed but somewhat woozy sextet from Richard Strauss' opera "Capriccio." This was a novel curtain-raiser that had the Bell-minded capacity audience quite spellbound. Much credit for creating that effect must go to concertmaster Zach De Pue, who showed exemplary leadership of the ensemble.

Before the concerto, the annual presentation of the "Patch" Award (named after the legendary ISO violinist-conductor Renato Pacini) went to assistant principal contrabassist Robert Goodlett, whose 40-plus years' service to the orchestra has included everything from dedicated volunteer coaching of students to managing the musicians' online newsletter and social-media presence during the 2012 lockout.

Urbanski brought something special to "New World."
Most of the Bell devotees remained to keep the hall full for Urbanski's interpretation of Dvorak's Symphony No. 9 in E minor ("From the New World"), a warhorse that was  a favorite of John Nelson, ISO music director from 1977 to 1987. Friday's performance had considerable emotional depth, and not only in the famous "Largo," with its plaintive English-horn solo (capably rendered by Roger Roe). Apart from a shaky first chord, the movement was splendid throughout. The flute-led episode, said to be inspired by an Indian funeral in Longfellow's "Hiawatha," was just as distinguished as the English-horn theme.

Also notable about this performance was the decision to repeat the first movement's compact exposition. Even though the piece is familiar to audiences, so much is gained proportionally by not gliding into the development without solidifying the presentation of the material. And nothing could have been better than the dancing elan of the third movement, keyed to Jack Brennan's precise timpani, and the sweet contrast provided by its gracefully played Trio section.

But the performance's crowning glory (as Dvorak designed it) was the finale. The most remarkable aspect of the performance was the way Urbanski elicited full respect for every iteration of melodies from this and the prior movements. It's easy to encounter performances where these delightful scraps emerge as no more than decorative reminders. Urbanski, on the other hand, seemed to be saying: "Dvorak had sound reasons for bringing forward these melodies each time he does so, and we're  going to honor all of them." It was a most insightful emphasis, bodied forth completely in the orchestra's performance.