Saturday, January 31, 2015

Two popular Russian masterpieces constitute Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's second midwinter festival program

With the music director taking off the middle week of "Fantasy, Fate and War: A Midwinter Russian Music Festival," a near-exact contemporary of his mounts the podium of the Hilbert Circle Theatre to conduct works by Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky.

Han-Na Chang makes her ISO debut.
Han-Na Chang is also a colleague of Krzysztof Urbanski's on the artistic side of the Trondheim (Norway) Symphony Orchestra. After making a sensation as a precocious concert cellist, the South Korean musician switched to conducting in her late teens, and most of the 32-year-old maestra's career has been devoted to wielding the baton. Since last season, Chang has been principal guest conductor at Trondheim, where Urbanski was appointed chief conductor in 2010.

On Friday night, Chang made her Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra debut. She showed herself to be a thoroughly schooled conductor with pinpoint control over what the musicians in front of her were doing. In Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5 in E minor, she put her characteristic nervous tension and quick reflexes to good use in eliciting from the ISO an electrifying performance of a popular favorite.

Her background as an instrumentalist must have contributed to drawing a deep, solid tone from all five string sections. The moody introduction to the famous horn solo in the second movement (played with sterling clarity and warmth by Robert Danforth) was richly evocative. When the cellos got their turn at that horn melody, they made it just as memorable. The string sections also led the way in the flexibility Chang encouraged via a more thoroughgoing adherence to the "con alcuna licenza" direction at the head of the movement than one often hears. There was thus appropriate "license" that moved well beyond the floating horn solo.

String articulation was at a high level in the waltz movement, and at the start of the finale, it was startling to hear so much earthy Wagnerian pomp in the opening measures. The heaviness fit, somehow, in music never far from looming Fate, despite the Russian composer's well-documented dislike of Richard Wagner's operas.

Tempo shifts later on were generally well-managed, though one acceleration made so abrupt a contrast  it came out jumbled at first. Chang's quick, sometimes large gestures led to a broken stick early in the finale, and she finished without interruption clutching its stub in her right hand. Such an accident and the vigor that caused it couldn't distract from Chang's continually demonstrated ability to forge a unified performance. She always seemed attentive to the passing of similar material among orchestral choirs, especially in the first movement.

Before intermission, Chang was joined by another ISO debutant, pianist Vadym Kholodenko, gold
Cliburn gold medalist played Prokofiev with panache.
medalist at the 2013 Van Cliburn Competition. His previous Indianapolis appearance was in a solo recital last March.

Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major, a work almost as popular as the Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony, made up the concert's first half. Characteristically barbed and angular, it makes room for a swelling romantic melody in the finale that lines it up spiritually with concertos by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff.

It displayed Kholodenko's keen feeling for evenly voiced chords, melting lyrical tone, polished passagework, and displayed his acute rhythmic sense. The composer's sardonic humor wasn't shortchanged by either guest; they worked together well.

Kholodenko, full of ideas of his own, never allowed them to run away with him. His partnership with the ISO was steady and inspired throughout. Called back for an encore, the Kiev native played Henry Purcell's Ground in C minor, a restrained, inward-looking contrast to the effervescent concerto.