Saturday, February 21, 2015

Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra spotlights two 20th-century composers of extraordinary verve and color

Miguel Harth-Bedoya worked wonders with Strauss.
D. Kern Holoman, a conductor-scholar not overly given to gushing, calls the Marschallin-Octavian-Sophie trio near the end of "Der Rosenkavalier" "one of the loveliest passages in all music."

Many music-lovers would be inclined to agree, adding perhaps the concluding duet in which Octavian and Sophie celebrate their hard-won love. Both episodes were highlights of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's performance of the "Rosenkavalier Suite" Friday night at Hilbert Circle Theatre.

Among the characteristic waltzes and other love music, along with the rich comic portraiture of the awkward Baron von Ochs, this is certainly one of the most pristinely evocative suites drawn from any ballet or opera.

Guest conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya elicited from the players about as perfect a characterization of it as could be imagined.  The teasing eroticism of the slow waltzes, the exuberant mastery of accelerating waltzes, the unique voicings of the Presentation of the Rose music — everything was in place.

If the aforementioned trio and duet stood out as special, they did so fully in context. The opera's droll ending is exquisite, but in this concert setting of the opera's highlights, so is the blazing coda.

I recall an old New Yorker cartoon from the LP era, with a wan-looking old man in pajamas saying to his wife: "I know the doctor says this is just a slight cold, but just in case, could you put on Side 8 of 'Der Rosenkavalier' one more time?" Exactly.

Twyla Robinson offered inspired interpretations of Ravel and Strauss.
Something of that radiance visited the generously talented Strauss in his songs, five of which were sung before intermission by Twyla Robinson. It's worth singling out "Morgen," partly because it shares the atmosphere of romantic bliss with the last scene of "Der Rosenkavalier," and partly because it featured a sublimely sustained and quietly intense violin solo by associate concertmaster Philip Palermo.

Robinson seemed quite suited to these songs, whose overall tone is reflective. She avoided overloading them with emotion; the feeling appropriate to each grew from within. This worked particularly well with the one-line refrain of "Allerseelen" (All Souls' Day) — the German for "as once in May." The final iteration of that line was filled with breathtaking ardor.

The soprano was also a treasurable soloist in Ravel's "Sheherazade," a rarefied set of interpretations of the imperishable storyteller's magic to sensual texts by Tristan Klingsor.  It may be slightly discomfiting in this age of ISIS atrocities to share the Orientalist speaker's eagerness (in "Asie,"  the first song) "to see smiling assassins, the executioner cuts an innocent neck, with his great curved Oriental blade."

But this shock actually helps the listener settle into the dated exoticism of both the text and the music across the perfumed breadth of the work's three songs. From the orchestra there were some heart-tugging solos, despite some below-pitch playing in the flute's lower register, and some nicely regulated ensemble outbursts.

The concert opened with an energized performance of Ravel's "Rapsodie espagnole," deficient only in not providing as hushed a pianissimo (particularly in the opening "Prelude a la nuit") as the ISO is capable of.  The duetting clarinets and bassoons in that movement were delectable, however.

The dance forms of the concise middle movements — MalagueƱa and Habanera — were gracefully brought off. And the finale, "Feria," vividly conveyed the idea of a gradually exuberant folk celebration, right up through the rambunctious trombone-section glissando at the end. To borrow a phrase from another musical genre, this moment always suggests there's a riot goin' on — or about to be one.

The program will be repeated tonight in the ISO's 317 Series in a concert at Avon High School.