Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Raymond Leppard continues tradition of conducting opening concert of University of Indianapolis season

Moving cautiously onto the Lilly Performance Hall stage as he recuperates from recent back surgery, Raymond Leppard basked in the warm applause from a full house gathered for the opening of the concert season at the University of Indianapolis. The esteem in which he is held here almost guarantees an enthusiastic reception for anything he adds to the city's musical life at age 87.

Raymond Leppard
The conductor laureate of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, fulfilling his artist-in-residence duties at UIndy most conspicuously with this appearance, led a professional orchestra made up largely of faculty and ISO members, University of Indianapolis choral ensembles, and vocal and instrumental soloists at the DeHaan Fine Arts Center.

The program played to his strengths in 18th-century music and the conservative British tradition.The string-orchestra version of Holst's "St. Paul's Suite" opened the program in a tidy performance. The second-movement ostinato that lends the movement its title sounded a little odd, as if it were coming from a non-string instrument, but that was the only disorienting aspect of the performance.

"It's all slightly folksy," as Leppard said of "St. Paul's Suite" in offhand remarks from the stage during an interview by Paul Krasnovsky, the school's director of choral activities. That regular feature of this gala event was long on jollity and short on substance. It would be interesting to know how Leppard got to be artist-in-residence at the University of Indianapolis, for example, but the man who holds that position said he didn't know. And that was that.

Krasnovsky's student choristers sounded admirably fit so early in the school year as they sang three sections of Mozart's Mass in C major, K. 257.  At 20, Mozart in this piece reveals several signs of mastery. It was evident in the authentic anxiety put into musical terms in the portion of the "Gloria" that translates as "Thou who takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us."  It was also present in the quickening of the tempo in the "Agnus Dei," when "grant us peace" seemed to take on particular urgency. Four student soloists handled brief solos capably.

The program was filled out with music by the two most significant composers in the 1685 birth cohort. Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G major benefited from an expert  solo group composed of Austin Hartman, violin, and Anne Reynolds and Tamara Thweatt, flutes. The performance was neatly put together and gently impelled forward.

Three numbers (two solos and a duet) from Handel's opera "Rodelinda" featured faculty singers Kathleen Hacker, soprano, and mezzo-soprano Mitzi Westtra. I was particularly enchanted with the expressiveness and grace of Westra's performance of the first-act aria, assigned to the male hero Bertarido: "Confusa si miri." Hacker delivered a concise summary of the opera and the three numbers
beforehand to make the dramatic import of the music clear to the audience. 

Another UIndy faculty member will be involved at the 2015 gala, we learned Monday night. John Berners will compose on commission a work for chamber orchestra in honor of arts patron and university supporter Christel DeHaan. The composition will receive its premiere a year from now.