Saturday, October 11, 2014

Two major works by Catholic composers constitute this weekend's Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra program

No major work in the repertoire is surrounded by such a spooky legend as Mozart's Requiem in D minor, K. 626.
ISO guest conductor Matthew Halls

The gray-cloaked stranger with a mysterious commission. The overworked and increasingly ill composer. The feverish deathbed activity to complete a work promised to a nobleman who would claim it as his own.

All this occupies an indelible part of the public imagination from the play and film "Amadeus," a clever drama designed to exploit the legend and let the facts take care of themselves, serving Peter Shaffer's dramatic purpose as needed.

Masterpiece though it is, the Requiem is not wholly Mozart's work. It survives thanks to the efforts of Mozart's widow, Constanze, and her reluctant choice of an undistinguished pupil, Franz Xaver Suessmayr, to complete the commission after his teacher's death. The good is oft interred with men's bones, but not their debts and obligations.

So has the Requiem come down to us, sometimes subject to informed tinkering to reduce the Suessmayr fingerprint as much as possible. How much Mozart passed on to him in conversations that may have shaped the pupil's completion will never be known. Let me suggest the problem parallels recent scholarly parsing of Jesus' utterances in the Gospels to determine what he really or probably said.

In this weekend's performances  by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra and the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir, audiences at Hilbert Circle Theatre will probably be thrilled by guest conductor Matthew Halls' command of the massed forces.  Friday night he displayed strong convictions about the Requiem, expressed through brisk tempos and a fondness for immense choral volume.

As usual, the large choir had been scrupulously prepared by its artistic director, Eric Stark. Some Stark hallmarks, such as well-coordinated separation of a word's syllables (especially in Lacrimosa and Kyrie), were carried over into Halls' interpretation. I couldn't quite see the reason for landing so hard so often on the second syllable of "eleison," but the practice served notice early on that this performance was going to present the chorus in strong profile.

The size and forcefulness of the choir posed a bit of a balance problem. There are interesting aspects of the orchestral accompaniment that help express the work's meaning.  The magnificent choir overwhelmed them. I'm not forgetting well-managed moments of dynamic contrast — the hush of the women's voices in the last line of Agnus Dei, for example. But in full cry, Stark's singers almost always dominated the orchestra.

Is it reading too much into the syncopated downward leaps in the strings as the chorus enters with (in Latin) "Grant them eternal rest" to hear the anxious appeal that the transition between earthly and eternal life be covered in mercy for the dead?  Or that the vigorous figures, also involving striking shifts of register, accompanying "Quam olim Abrahae" at the end of the Offertorium's first two movements suggest that God's promise to Abraham has a broad reach across generations?

At times, in other words, it didn't seem that only the burial of the dead was involved. The orchestra was in danger of interment as well.

Otherwise, Friday's performance had consistency and fervor. These qualities were matched by the guest vocal soloists: Yulia Van Doren, soprano; Meg Bragle, alto; Lawrence Wiliford, tenor, and Nathan Berg, bass. They sounded fine individually, and they blended well, particularly the women. I wish Van Doren's diction had been clearer, however; it sounded positively Sutherlandesque.

The concert opened with Olivier Messiaen's four orchestral pictures of a key event in Christian theology, "The Ascension" ("L'Ascension"). The brass rose to the occasion immediately in the majestic, harmonically spicy first section. The second movement, "Serene Hallelujahs of a Soul that Longs for Heaven," featured a sinuous English-horn solo by Roger Roe, among other woodwind delights.

Trumpet fanfares solidly answered by the strings made the third movement especially vivid. Strings alone conveyed the message of the finale, "Prayer of Christ Ascending to His Father," with the divided violins leading the invocation and just the first desks of violas and cellos in support.

Only the freshness of Messiaen's musical thinking, well delineated here, redeemed the obviousness of his constantly devout, unanswerable message.