Saturday, September 27, 2014

Richness of Indianapolis music receives a season-opening demonstration by the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra

"Every community gets the culture it deserves" was a wise saying that used to get heads nodding in agreement when I was active in the Music Critics Association long ago. It's an appropriation of an old quotation about government.

Applied to culture, and specifically classical music, it seems to answer complaints about the lack of appreciation that musical organizations often feel they get in metropolitan areas that can't accurately plead poverty. By that standard, Indianapolis must be pretty deserving these days, except for the questionable prospects of professional opera here.

Kelly Corcoran has an IU master's degree.
That was brought home to me Friday night as I enjoyed an excellent season-opening concert by the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra, which is deciding among three finalists this season who should be its next music director. At the 2014-15 season debut in Butler University's Schrott Center, it got good results with Kelly Corcoran on the podium. She and the orchestra were also enjoying the guest-soloist appearance of Sean Chen, 2013 Classical Fellow of the American Pianists Association, 
whose home is on the Butler campus.

This bright spot on the schedule was surrounded by illumination elsewhere on the calendar — the weekend after the Ninth Quadrennial International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, and on a weekend bookended by season-launching concerts by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Krzysztof Urbanski, its music director.

I couldn't help thinking of other apparently deserving cities that recently have been deprived of topflight professional music-making — notably Atlanta (still in lockout mode) and Minneapolis. That is not meant to be an excuse for complacency here, because the flame requires vigilant attention in an era when it can so easily be snuffed out. But we are pretty lucky nowadays (as well as deserving).

Chen was a soloist of impeccable elan in Beethoven's Piano Concerto in E-flat ("Emperor"). The
Sean Chen had a stellar 2013 here and in Fort Worth.
nickname was oddly left out of public-radio PSAs I heard beforehand, but enough people knew what they would be hearing to fill the hall. There was also, of course, the drawing card of the first of the candidates to succeed Kirk Trevor after his quarter-century on the ICO podium.

Such indelible monikers as "Emperor" are often unsanctioned by the composer. In this case, given the legend that a French officer felt the work's imposing nature justified honoring Napoleon by linking the conquering Corsican to the music, it would have been a painful association for Beethoven in the besieged Austrian capital.

But the performance had an imperial swagger to it, though the Chen-Corcoran partnership countenanced nothing outlandish. The pianist sported clean trills, crisp octaves, good dynamic variety and evenness in all passage work. He displayed admirable strength without wasted energy; wrists and forearms never had to be raised far above the keyboard. The accompaniment had the same virtues, with power bursting forth when needed, yet offering many delicate touches as well, especially in the finale. Called back for an encore, Chen played Leopold Godowsky's transcription of Schubert's "Trout" swimmingly.

The concert was launched with the first installment of composer-in-residence James Aikman's "Peacemakers." It's an attractive piece, with substantial hints of the threats that all peacemakers (Gandhi is specifically invoked in this prelude to the suite) must face. The ICO's lower strings were particularly adept, forceful and unified, at characterizing this music, described by the composer as progressing "from elegiac and retrospective to triumphantly heroic."

Without a soloist or a resident composer as a collaborator, Corcoran evinced her interpretive and technical control in two works after intermission. Aaron Copland's "Music for Movies," a trim and evocative suite drawn from his work in Hollywood circa 1940, was colorful and acutely balanced. The vivid acoustics of the Schrott Center put the ICO winds on their mettle when it came to blending well, and they rose to the challenge.

The concert concluded with a predictably exciting account of Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 4 in A major ("Italian," this designation being composer-applied).  The woodwinds again provided lively, well-blended playing, the horns' prominence in the third-movement Trio was invigorating,  the strings' clarity in the first movement's counterpoint outstandingly defined. Mendelssohn almost always wore his learning lightly, and it was gratifying to hear a performance in which the range of such skills got full display.

The ICO, long-known for its esprit de corps, conveyed that spirit well throughout this concert. And it thrived with two such well-prepared and inspiring guest musicians to work with. Its fitness is part of what I'm bold to say we deserve in this city.