Saturday, April 18, 2015

Complexities of the German symphonic tradition sketched in ISO concert at the Palladium

Christoph Altstaedt, ISO guest conductor
All-orchestra concerts have a reputation for not drawing as well as concerts featuring guest soloists, and that truism seemed to be the case Friday night at Carmel's Palladium.

Lots of empty seats did not keep the fascinating program on paper from being brought to life well. Young German conductor Christoph Altstaedt, bouncy yet reserved, led the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra in pieces by Bach/Webern, Richard Wagner, and Felix Mendelssohn.

Some American sass was contributed by Stephen Bachicha, a composer associated with Rice University in Houston and the winner of this year's Marilyn K. Glick Young Composer's Showcase. Bachicha was on hand to acknowledge the applause after the ISO performed his "Allusions, Illusions & Delusions."

Companion to bustling strings in new work.
Bachicha's lively melange of salutes to composers he admires ("allusions") and a bumptious phantasmagoria ("illusions and delusions") was thoroughly entertaining. It scorned points of rest or second thoughts; it was a mover and shaker from first to last. The meandering flugelhorn melody that helps tie the piece together was a bit hard to follow on first hearing, so my sense of the work's cohesiveness remains somewhat vague. But there were lots of moment-to-moment thrills: How often do you hear a fugato episode for strings punctuated by the slapstick, for instance?

But back to the major focus of the program, which will be repeated tonight at the ISO's home, Hilbert Circle Theatre in downtown Indianapolis. Felix Mendelssohn was a devoted Lutheran; his wealthy family's conversion from Judaism was effected in his early childhood. Of course, his heritage did not save his reputation during the Nazi era, and gentile musicians the world over were among the many
Leipzig's Mendelssohn monument (restored)
music-lovers who deplored the pulling down of Leipzig's Mendelssohn monument in 1936.

His background may have something to do with the consensus that, among his two major oratorios, "Elijah" is a better piece than "St. Paul." But then, the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) has more good story material than the New Testament. There is no reason to question that what was originally a prudent decision to convert had by the time of the brilliant composer's adulthood been thoroughly absorbed.

His "Reformation" Symphony (No. 5 in D major) ascends to an expressive summit in the finale, with a chorale on "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God," introduced with warm expressiveness in Friday's performance by principal flutist Karen Moratz. Despite the way the strings (with the basses in their old Nelson-Leppard-period placement) settle into a complacent, jog-trot fugue before the peroration, the performance Altstaedt conducted at the Palladium made a good case for taking the work seriously and setting aside the composer's reputation as a lightweight.

Among the other nicknamed Mendelssohn symphonies, the D major will never replace the "Italian" or the "Scottish" in the public's affection. Still, it is full of lovely, well-managed material, particularly in the concise middle movements, which were scrupulously sculpted by the batonless Altstaedt. The seriousness of the more capacious first movement was never in doubt in this interpretation, and helped the work demonstrate how well it deserved its place among Bach and Wagner.

In fact, Wagner was an early admirer of Mendelssohn, particularly his conducting. Some of this admiration was surely connected to the rising opera composer's desire to have Mendelssohn's influence behind a Berlin production of "The Flying Dutchman." The elder composer was hardly fresh in the grave, however, before Wagner wrote his notorious essay "Jewishness in Music," a landmark of cultural anti-Semitism in the Austro-German world that was to come to full toxic flowering in the 1930s.

But late Wagner, in the form of "Good Friday Spell" and the Prelude from "Parsifal," was an inspired complement to the "Reformation" Symphony in this concert. The music's religiosity, cast in the form of the most advanced "endless melody" Wagner ever fashioned, bloomed impressively in the friendly acoustical environs of the Palladium. Altstaedt got consistent warmth from all sections of the orchestra, with every phrase linked to its neighbor.

What cast Mendelssohn as a conservative at a time when Wagner entertained revolutionary pretensions was in part his devotion to music of the past. The J.S. Bach revival was largely to his credit, and this lifting up of German art at the instigation of the scion of a prominent Jewish family  ironically triumphed in the long run. Anton Webern, whose politics in the Nazi era are not above reproach, saw his music as rooted in a tradition that Mendelssohn (as conductor) had much to do with restoring to health.

Webern's arrangement of Bach's ricercar "a 6 voci" from "The Musical Offering" is a peculiar fruit of his connection to that tradition. Its distribution of Bach's material around the orchestra emphasizes the independence of the strands that the original setting blends. You can see how everything works in  Webern's setting, which reminds me of a huge, transparent plastic model of the internal-combustion engine placed on a rotating pedestal in AutoWorld, the failed tourist attraction in my hometown of Flint, Michigan. Pumping pistons, sparking spark plugs, rhythmically sliding valves, rising and falling camshaft — everything was there, lofty and well-lit.

That's the kind of tribute Webern makes to Bach's music. The ISO played the piece well except for a few inadequately sustained phrases. And the arrangement has survived longer than AutoWorld (opened in 1984, demolished in 1997), which gives hope for art over expensive civic boosterism. But that's fortunately not an even contest, is it?